Commentary

Matt Holliday delivers a timely gift

First home run of NLCS places Cardinals one win away from World Series

Updated: October 16, 2013, 3:37 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- One swing. One magical swing of the bat. Sometimes in October, that's all it takes.

Games are won. Games are lost. Lives are changed. Seasons are defined.

You can ask Kirk Gibson, whose 1988 World Series homer is still traveling, still celebrated on the Dodger Stadium video board on its 25th anniversary, on this very Tuesday night.

You can ask Ozzie Smith, whose 1985 National League Championship Series home run against the Dodgers seemed to spring back to life this month, when the Cardinals and Dodgers found themselves matched up again with a World Series on the line.

And maybe, if the 2013 Cardinals go on to win another World Series, you can ask Matt Holliday if he'll ever forget the titanic home run he hit to lead his team to a gigantic 4-2 win over the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS Tuesday night.

Now it wasn't a walkoff. And it wasn't a late-inning game-changer. It didn't come against a Cy Young starter or one of the most feared closers in baseball. So it will never reach the poetic heights of Gibson's "The Impossible Has Happened" blast, or of the Wizard's unforgettable "Go Crazy Folks" home run. We all recognize that.

But for this Cardinals team, it was one swing of the bat they desperately needed.

One swing of the bat that erased the stench of one of the worst postseason games they've ever played.

[+] EnlargeMatt Holliday
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesMatt Holliday's 423-foot blast to left field highlighted a three-run third inning for St. Louis.
One swing of the bat that gave them a 3-1 lead in this series and propelled them to within one win of returning to their second World Series in the past three years.

Oh, and one more thing: The home run that was launched by that swing might be on its 14th orbit of the earth by the time you read this.

"Yeah," Holliday aw-shucked it up later. "I got it good."

He got it good? That could be the understatement of the 21st century.

With his team holding a 1-0 lead with two outs in the third inning, he ate up a first-pitch Ricky Nolasco fastball that tailed over the middle of the plate, and it was quite a sight to behold -- if you were an air-traffic controller.

First off, just the crack of the bat was so loud, it sounded like a jackhammer colliding with a slab of concrete.

"Now that's a big swing," said Matt Carpenter, who had doubled in the first run of the inning and got to watch this baseball whoosh over his head at third base. "That's one of those ones that, as soon as it hits the barrel, everyone in the stadium knows it's gone."

Well, if they didn't know from the sound, the flight of the baseball definitely tipped them off -- assuming they could see a baseball that was that high up in the sky.

It roared through the L.A. night, soared over the fence in left, cleared the back wall beyond the Dodgers' bullpen and was last seen heading for a big Chevy truck display behind the left-field pavilion.

And two hours later, even his teammates weren't exactly certain where this baseball landed.

"I don't know," Carpenter laughed. "Has it landed?"

"I'm really not sure [where it came down]," David Freese said. "But is that truck OK?"

"He hit that ball a long way," Daniel Descalso said. "I know that."

Asked if he was at least reasonably confident it came down in L.A. County, Descalso replied, hesitantly: "I think so."

And then there was Holliday's take on this space shot. Asked if he'd ever hit one farther, he summed up the essence of this blast beautifully, replying: "Maybe. But not in that kind of situation."

That kind of situation. Well said -- because in October, it's always about the situation. Every swing, every run, every homer has its own special context. And for this Cardinals team, in this moment in time, this home run was as big as it gets.

[+] EnlargeMatt Carpenter
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports Matt Carpenter and the Cardinals' infield turned three double plays.
Before that inning, the Cardinals hadn't scored a run since Saturday -- 16 innings, two time zones, 1,600 miles and one Yasiel Puig bat-flip escapade ago.

Before that swing, they hadn't hit a home run in a week, since a Matt Adams blast in Game 5 of the Pirates series. And, for that matter, neither team had homered in this series -- making this the first postseason series without a home run by anyone through three games since the 1948 World Series.

And before that home-run trot produced a 3-0 lead that the Cardinals would never give back, Holliday himself was 0-for-the-NLCS (as in 0-for-13) and his team was hitting a ridiculous .141 in this series -- an average not particularly befitting the reputation of a club often referred to as having the best lineup in the National League.

But one swing of the bat would make just about all of that irrelevant. And that's what No. 3 hitters on teams like this are supposed to do this time of year.

It's exactly what Holliday did when he busted up a 0-0 game in Game 4 of the NL Division Series in Pittsburgh, when his team was one loss from heading for the ski slopes. And on this night, he charged them up yet again.

"That's huge," Freese said. "That's two series in a row he's helped us out with a homer like that. That home run in Pittsburgh was great for us. And obviously, tonight was the same. The funny thing about this time of year is, you can be hitless and then come through and it takes us into the [World] Series. That's just how it works this time of year."

This was Holliday's 10th career postseason homer, making him one of only 10 active players who have reached double figures in October. And it was one of the most important he has ever hit for the Cardinals -- considering that it was one of very few balls they've even hit hard in this series, and it comes before they get back into the Cy Young portion of the Dodgers' rotation, with Zack Greinke lurking to face them in Game 5 on Wednesday.

When you have Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu waiting for you just over the horizon, there's a monstrous difference between taking a 3-1 series lead versus being tied 2-2. And no one had to call a meeting and outline that difference on a chalkboard for this Cardinals team.

They know just what this win meant. But even more importantly, they know what it DIDN'T mean.

They don't need to consult Ken Burns to recall they were leading the NLCS 3-1 last year, too. And that didn't turn out quite how they had in mind. So as Yadier Molina put it so eloquently, "We take nothing for granted after last year."

Amazingly, this is the third time in franchise history the Cardinals have taken a 3-1 lead in an NLCS -- and they didn't win either series the previous two times they did it. One was in 1996 against the Braves. The other came last year against the Giants.

But 12 months after last October's NLCS meltdown, they're merely using what happened last year as fuel, not as the nightmare that keeps on springing back to life when they least expect it to.

[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
Richard Mackson,USA TODAY SportsDavid Freese is one of those who isn't thinking about what happened to the Cardinals last year when they were up 3-1 in the NLCS.

"Honestly, we don't think about last year," Carpenter said. "We know what happened. But still, this is a whole new team, a whole new season, and it's the Dodgers. Last year was the Giants. This is a whole different deal. We're just going to come out ready to go tomorrow. We know we're one win away from the World Series, and that's what we're worried about."

There are times when even they wonder how exactly they've gotten to this point. They're hitting .148, with six extra-base hits and a .234 slugging percentage. And they didn't have a hit all series with a runner in scoring position by a player not named Carlos Beltran until Tuesday night. Which is a very bizarre way to power the World Series Express.

"It's been a lot like the San Francisco series last year," Freese said, "where offensively, a lot of us didn't show up. But our pitchers have singlehandedly allowed us to make it this far."

Well, right he is. Their pitchers have a 1.62 ERA. Their bullpen has a 0.00 ERA through 14 innings. And now that they've somehow gotten this far, there's a resolve in the room not to let last October's history repeat itself.

Well, here's some news they ought to find uplifting on that front:

No team in the history of any major professional sport has blown a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series two years in a row. Not in baseball. Not in the NBA. Not in the NHL.

So history is with them. But "honestly," said Freese, "I don't think we're even really thinking about it.

"We're so focused on the Dodgers. We're so focused on what a privilege this is to be a part of. You know, these last few years have been extremely special. And they obviously don't come around a lot. But we've been around the last couple of years in October, and we don't take that for granted. We're going to turn the page tonight. And this is all about tomorrow, and trying to beat a very tough pitcher."

Last year in Game 5, they lost a shocker at home against Barry Zito and never won again. So beating Greinke in a game like this won't be any easier. But as this entire postseason has been proving, day after day, game after game, what happens in October isn't about trophies, past history or the numbers or anybody's stat sheet.

"It's just about finding a way to win," Carpenter said. "That's what these games are all about. And that's what this team is all about."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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