ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals' grip on the second National League Wild Card spot got a bit looser Thursday night, as the Dodgers asserted themselves as formidable challengers in that race by opening a four-game series at Busch Stadium with a 9-7 win.
And while it cost the Cardinals a game in the standings -- their lead over Los Angeles has been whittled down to one -- there were also some tangible gains.
They made a three-time NL Cy Young Award winner look vulnerable and did enough chipping away at what was a seven-run deficit to force Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen into the game in the ninth. Jansen sealed the win, but not before he threw 29 pitches and brought the tying run to the plate.
The residual effects of that work could linger deep into a series that will shape how the Cardinals are set up for the final two-week push of the regular season.
"It speaks volumes about how this team competes regardless of situation," manager Mike Shildt said. "We talk about consistency. We talk about habits. And that was on full display tonight. I'm really proud of the guys. They battled to the end."
Nevertheless, the Cardinals, who have held sole possession of a Wild Card spot every day since Aug. 21, have hardly a cushion now. They also dropped further back of the Brewers (three games) and the Cubs (4 1/2 games) in the NL Central.
Thursday offered the Cardinals a chance to ride the momentum of their recent sweep at Dodger Stadium. Instead, they found themselves trailing by three before even getting a crack at Clayton Kershaw. By the end of the fourth, the Dodgers boasted an 8-1 lead.
That offensive ambush came mostly against lefty starter Austin Gomber, one of a handful of young pitchers the Cardinals intend to ride toward October. In the worst start of his Major League career, Gomber allowed nearly as many earned runs (seven) in three-plus innings on Thursday as he had in his past six starts combined (eight).
"Kershaw is somebody I've looked up to," Gomber said. "He's an idol of mine, obviously one of the greatest left-handed pitchers to ever do it, and I was excited and confident in the preparation I put in. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way."
The Cardinals, who had won Gomber's first seven career starts, have now dropped two in a row.
"I felt like so far since I've been in the rotation I've given us a chance to win, and tonight I didn't," Gomber said. "Five days from now, hopefully, we are having a different conversation."
A short memory will be necessary after this one, as Gomber will continue to be featured in St. Louis' constantly evolving rotation. He's one of three rookies currently in that group, which also includes another two members who have never spent a full season in a Major League rotation.
That inexperience will get its next test on Friday, when the Cardinals try to hang on to their Wild Card lead behind rookie Jack Flaherty.
"We learn a lot," Shildt said of pushing his rookies onto this stage. "You get a chance to see them compete and how they compete."
The Dodgers' flurry of offense -- which included 16 hits, three of which came from Manny Machado -- negated the work the Cardinals' own offense did against Kershaw. They scored four runs (three earned) off Kershaw and finished the night with a dozen hits.
"This is a positive game," Jose Martinez said. "I think it sent a message to them that we're going to [play] until the last out."
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Tyson Ross not only helped close a messy fourth inning for Gomber, but he also sparked the Cardinals' three-run fifth with his second career homer. Ross joined Madison Bumgarner as the only pitchers to take Kershaw deep when he drove a slider a projected 396 feet, per Statcast™, just out of the reach of a leaping Enrique Hernandez. The next four batters also reached base against Kershaw.
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"Unfortunately, I wish I could've came in and shut down that inning with Gomber's runners on base there and kept the game a little bit closer," Ross said. "But any time you get up there to make solid contact, it's a good feeling."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Freese hurts former team: After receiving a standing ovation in front of his former hometown crowd, David Freese dug in for a 14-pitch, first-inning at-bat against Gomber. Freese fouled off nine pitches before driving a changeup into the left-field corner for a two-run triple. The hit helped spark a three-run first inning and led to Gomber throwing 33 pitches in the frame.
"That really got us going," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "David Freese had some input in the hitters' meeting. He had some at-bats against [Gomber]. I thought we had a really good approach against him." More >
Cards give Jansen a scare: Three weeks after stinging Jansen twice in last at-bat wins at Dodger Stadium, the Cardinals had the veteran closer on the ropes again after the first two batters reached against him to open the ninth. The inning extended far enough for Matt Adams to draw a pinch-hit opportunity as the potential tying run. Jansen squashed the budding momentum there, though, by inducing a game-ending groundout.
"I'm not going to complain about [pitching in a non-save situation], but it's my job to finish the game, no matter what the score," Jansen said. "Not throwing strikes [is frustrating]. That's the whole thing. But you've got to keep going."
Ross became the fourth Cardinals pitcher to homer this season, joining John Gant, Miles Mikolas and Carlos Martinez. Their combined six home runs are the most by a Cardinals pitching staff since 1973. The last time the club had at least four pitchers go deep was 1966, when Bob Gibson, Joe Hoerner, Larry Jaster, Ray Sadecki and Ray Washburn each hit one home run. More >
In a rematch of their Aug. 22 duel at Dodger Stadium, rookies Flaherty (8-6, 2.92 ERA) and Walker Buehler (6-5, 3.09 ERA) will square off again when the Cardinals host the Dodgers at Busch Stadium on Friday. First pitch is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. CT. Flaherty and Buehler combined to allow one run over 13 innings the last time they met, with Flaherty giving up the run. The Cardinals ended up stealing a come-from-behind victory.