Cards’ knack for pulling right strings has them win from NLCS — again


Visions of October can compel a team to make a trade that rocks its own clubhouse.

Moments in October can make a player a goat, and then a hero, all before he turns 24 years old.

Say hello to Monday night’s stars for the St. Louis Cardinals, right-hander John Lackey and second baseman Kolten Wong.

Lackey, the veteran whom the Cardinals acquired from the Red Sox on July 31 at the price of outfielder Allen Craig and right-hander Joe Kelly, two popular figures in the St. Louis clubhouse.

Wong, the rookie who got picked off first base to end Game 4 of last year’s World Series, then got sent to the minors in late April, then went on the disabled list in June.

This Division Series isn’t over with the Cardinals leading two games to one, not even close. But the Dodgers would have seized a commanding advantage if not for Lackey, who pitched seven brilliant innings, and Wong, whose two-run homer in the seventh provided the difference in the Cardinals’ 3-1 victory before a record crowd of 47,574 at Busch Stadium.

The Dodgers will remember this game for the impressive effort of lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, who went six innings in his first start since Sept. 12, allowing only a home run by — who else? — Matt Carpenter.

They will remember it for the inconsistent strike zone of plate umpire Dale Scott, who drew sharp criticism from right fielder Matt Kemp after the game.

But mostly, they will remember it for yet another sorry effort by the bullpen, which has turned into a puzzle without a solution. In each game of the series, the first reliever summoned by manager Don Mattingly has given up a home run.

How long must left-hander Clayton Kershaw pitch Tuesday in Game 4 on three days’ rest? Which reliever — other than closer Kenley Jansen — merits even a sliver of Mattingly’s trust?

It’s shocking that a team with a $235 million Opening Day payroll has such bullpen problems, but that is where the Dodgers stand. To win the series, they will need Kershaw to overcome the ascendant Shelby Miller in Game 4, then Zack Greinke to beat Adam Wainwright in Game 5.

Could happen, but the Dodgers are facing one resourceful opponent, an opponent that is getting a nightly homer from Carpenter in this series and contributions from others along the way.

Lackey, who turns 36 on Oct. 23, passed CC Sabathia on Monday night to become the active leader with 111 postseason innings. He now stands a chance of becoming only the fourth pitcher to make a postseason appearance and win a World Series with three different teams, joining Bullet Joe Bush, Dave Stewart and Jack Morris, according to STATS LLC.

Wong, who turns 24 on Friday, is a left-handed hitter who started against the left-handed Ryu, thanks to his .315 batting average and .790 OPS in 76 plate appearances against lefties in the regular season. His homer came off a left-handed reliever, Scott Elbert. And his subsequent shot up the middle against another lefty reliever, J.P. Howell, turned into an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play only when Howell fielded the ball between his legs.

Some of the Cardinals will tell you that Wong’s swing can get too big, especially for someone who is listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. But Wong, despite playing in only 113 games in the regular season, ranked fourth on the Cardinals with 12 homers.

He flipped his bat and raised his right fist almost immediately after crushing Elbert’s first-pitch, 89-mph fastball, admitting later that he “kind of lost it out there . . . the emotion came out.”

Success in October brings out that kind of fire. One more win in October, and the Cardinals will reach the NLCS for the fourth straight year. One more loss in October, and the Dodgers will go home.