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Cards can't fall out of line with current formula

While they should stick to what works, there's little room for error in NLCS

LOS ANGELES -- "The Cardinals' Way" describes a tried-and-true path to victory.

This October, part of the St. Louis Cardinals' way turns out to be a winning formula in the National League Championship Series. It doesn't involve much in the way of a margin for error, or room for taking a deep breath for that matter.

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In fact, it can become downright nerve-wracking. But it does have the Cardinals one victory away from the World Series, as the Cards took a 3-1 lead in the 2013 NLCS on Tuesday night with a 4-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.

The Redbirds' current formula for victory is neither complex nor mystical. The Cardinals get a well-pitched game, perhaps even an extraordinarily well-pitched game. Then they score a little. They don't have to score much, but they score one more than the Dodgers.

This has worked in this NLCS. The Cards won Game 1 in 13 innings, 3-2. They won Game 2, 1-0. After taking a brief break in Game 3 -- a 3-0 loss -- St. Louis got back its narrowly winning ways in Game 4.

Lance Lynn was good enough in the role of the starting pitcher, and then a procession of relief pitchers continued to succeed. The Cardinals won by two runs, but it could be argued that few could have predicted a pinch-hit home run by backup outfielder Shane Robinson.

The four runs scored by the Cards would normally not seem like much, but Tuesday, they matched their previous total for this series. This team led the league in runs scored during the regular season. Those were apparently the good old days for this club, but you can expect to have some erosion in the offensive numbers when facing postseason-quality pitching staffs.

The point is not whether the numbers appear to be wonderful or inadequate. The point is winning. The Cardinals have done this 60 percent of the time against the Pirates in the NL Division Series and 75 percent of the time against the Dodgers so far in the NLCS.

The Cards particularly liked Tuesday night's victory because it followed the one game in this series in which their play had been inadequate. The hitting hadn't been much, anyway, but the defense and the baserunning had also suffered letdowns in Game 3. But the Redbirds pride themselves on getting back up immediately after adversity knocks them down.

Trouble with the close
The last two times the Cardinals held a 3-1 lead in the NLCS, they lost the final three games of the series by a combined 52-2 margin
Year Opp. Game 5 Game 6 Game 7
1996 Braves 14-0, Atl. 3-1, Atl. 15-0, Atl.
2012 Giants 5-0, S.F. 6-1, S.F. 9-0, S.F.
Courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info

"Yeah, we talk about that a lot and take a lot of pride in being able to learn from the rough ones," manager Mike Matheny said. "You're going to have them. We're not going to sit and sulk in them though. We're going to improve from them and then come back out with a vengeance to prove something different.

"I think the guys have been very consistent with taking those games and putting them behind them and having an edge of, 'I'm going to prove the kind of player I am and the kind of team we are.' I think they showed that once again today."

This is not a push-button team, but Matheny pressed the correct buttons, anyway. Pete Kozma did not get the start at shortstop, but after he entered as a defensive replacement, he made a terrific play in the hole to start a double play and end a Dodgers threat in the sixth inning.

Robinson pinch-hit in the seventh and hit a solo home run.

Matt Holliday, whose mammoth two-run homer in the third had provided a big lift, said of Robinson's power: "For Shane being a little guy, he's got pretty good power. He's surprisingly got pretty good thump."

That is especially refreshing in an NLCS that has generally been thump-less. The Cardinals had a team batting average of .134 for the first three games of this series. Their six-hit outburst Tuesday night got them all the way up to .148.

How can a club be on the verge of winning an NL pennant with a batting average of .148 in a Championship Series? The answer is that while the Cards have scored a meager eight runs in these four games, the Dodgers have only scored seven. St. Louis' pitching has varied only from just fine to superb, both among starters and relievers.

And that is how the Redbirds have pieced together a 3-1 lead in this series. This particular Cardinals way seems a little light on run production, what with just two runs per day. But as good as the pitching has been and continues to be, this just might keep working.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals