Players insist there's something special brewing within their clubhouse, a claim that's becoming harder to deny as the Cardinals continue their second-half surge under interim manager Mike Shildt.
No matter the venue, no difference the opponent, the result has been mostly the same. Buoyed by late home runs from Paul DeJong and Tyler O'Neill, as well as electric outings from a trio of rookie pitchers, the Cardinals completed their first three-game sweep at Dodger Stadium since 2006 with a 3-1 win on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
"It's a hungry group. And once you have success, you want more," Shildt said of his now 71-win club. "It's a hungry group that shows up and builds on what they have done, learns on what they have done and competes that night. This group lays it out every night."
They were a .500 team one month ago, a club on the cusp of moving into sell mode. Since then, the Cardinals have reeled off eight consecutive series wins, tallied a Major League-most 17 August victories, won eight straight games on the road and eliminated any comfort the Cubs may have felt with their division lead.
Wednesday's win assured the Cardinals another day alone atop the National League Wild Card standings and maintained their 2 1/2-game deficit in the NL Central.
"We've turned around our season dramatically in a month or so," said Kolten Wong. "It's crazy to think that we were just fighting for a Wild Card spot, and now we're fighting to be the best team in the division. It's a crazy turnaround for us."
A series in which they started three rookie pitchers fittingly closed with a heap of rookie contributors. A 22-year-old Jack Flaherty shined for six innings, his only mistake being a sixth-inning solo homer to Joc Pederson.
Flaherty didn't allow another hit in his 10-strikeout performance, though he left on the hook for a 1-0 loss because the Cardinals were shut out on three hits over seven innings by Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler. But O'Neill, another rookie, picked up Flaherty with a pinch-hit home run off lefty reliever Scott Alexander in the eighth, tying the game at 1.
"I mean, I just knew that I came out of the game 1-0, and as long as it's close, we have a chance, especially in the later innings," Flaherty said after pitching at Dodger Stadium for the first time since he led Harvard-Westlake to a high school state championship in 2013. "Everybody did their job."
Rookie reliever Dakota Hudson held the 1-1 tie by retiring Manny Machado with the bases loaded in the eighth. That gave the Cardinals another crack at Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, pitching in his first series since being sidelined by an irregular heartbeat.
Two days after Jansen served up back-to-back blasts in the series opener, DeJong, mired in a 4-for-29 skid, stung the All-Star closer for a two-run homer. Jansen had never allowed three home runs in a single series. Before this week, he hadn't served up a long ball to a right-handed batter at Dodger Stadium in more than three years. It happened twice in the series.
"Sometimes, you just got to go through it, no excuse. You would never hear that from me," Jansen said. "Feel good or not feeling good, no excuse, just tough it out. Last two days weren't my days."
As for the Cardinals, they've now hit a Major League-most 20 home runs in the ninth inning or later this year.
"I think it has been a snowball effect for us, and we are confident we can win every game we're playing," DeJong said. "At this point, we don't care how much time these guys have. [The Dodgers] went to the World Series last year, and it doesn't matter. We came in here and played our game and played hard, and I think we just outplayed them for three games."
With closer Bud Norris unavailable, one final rookie stepped up. That was Jordan Hicks, who froze the Dodgers while striking out the side in the ninth.
"These guys have ability, and they have aggression, and they believe in themselves," Shildt said. "They are in attack mode. They let their ability play, and they're letting it all hang out. They have done a great job."
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Hicks seemed to stun the Dodgers in the ninth as he secured his fifth career save by striking out the side, all on called third strikes. He retired Cody Bellinger on a 102.4-mph fastball, James Dozier on a 101.7-mph fastball and Chris Taylor on a 102.5-mph fastball. Those were three of the top four fastest called third strikes in the Majors this year, and Hicks owns each of the eight fastest on the list, according to Statcast™. He is the only pitcher since 2008 to have three called third strikes registered at 100 mph or faster in one game.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Two days after throwing a season-high 37 pitches, Hudson found himself extended again after entering in the eighth. Matt Carpenter saved a run with a diving catch and flip to Hudson for the inning's second out. Still, the Dodgers went on to load the bases for Machado. Hudson fell behind, 2-0, before working the count even and inducing an inning-ending groundout on a slider. The Dodgers finished the series 3-for-23 with runners in scoring position.
"He wasn't going to give in to [Justin] Turner, which shows a lot, and gets Machado up there and gets behind the count and still goes right at it, makes a quality pitch," Shildt said. "You can't say enough about the way he competed."
Flaherty joins Chris Carpenter and Bob Gibson as the only pitchers in franchise history to have multiple starts of at least six innings with no more than one hit or one run with at least 10 strikeouts. They're also the only three Cardinals pitchers to string together seven consecutive starts of seven-plus strikeouts.
Flaherty, 22, and Buehler, 24, became the youngest pair of pitchers to strike out at least nine at Dodger Stadium since Ken Holtzman, 20, and Don Sutton, 21, did so in 1966.
HE SAID IT
"It was every pitch matters. It was as simple as that. As we come down the stretch, it feels like that most every time." -- Flaherty, on his duel with Buehler
After an off-day Thursday, right-hander Miles Mikolas will open a three-game series at 7:40 p.m. CT on Friday in Denver. Mikolas has won five consecutive decisions and has not lost since June 29 against the Braves. Right-hander Antonio Senzatela will start for the Rockies.