LOS ANGELES -- When the game was over, Jose Lima kneeled down on one knee in the infield grass, head bowed, humbled by what he'd done.
"I didn't know whether to cry or to jump in the stands," he said later. "Tonight I think the Lord blessed me."
He looked very much like another Dodger shutout artist, Orel Hershiser, who struck the same pose roughly 16 years ago after finishing his 59th consecutive scoreless inning for the 1988 Dodgers.
Lima has a long way to go to reach such a gaudy number, but his performance in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, against the most potent offense in the league, puts him squarely in Hereshiser's company.
"It's a great compliment to me to be thought of like that at all," he said. "Coming into this game, I knew I was going to have a great game, but not a nine-inning shutout against the Cardinals. I never thought I was going to pitch the greatest game of my career."
But like that ace from '88, Lima seized the moment, carried his club and captivated the Dodger Stadium crowd on his way to a 4-0, five-hit, four-strikeout performance.
And as it always is with Lima, it was a performance. He was dealing from the start, going after the heart of the Cardinals' lineup; mixing in every pitch he had and skipping off the mound; at the end of every half-inning, throwing fist-pumps, heart-thumps and shouts to the heavens.
"I threw everything tonight," he said. "Fastball, changeup, slider, sinkerball. Everything."
The fans couldn't get enough, chanting "Lima! Lima! Lima!" as the game went on, like he was Ali in Zaire, like he was Eruzione on the medal podium at Lake Placid.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, got more than they could handle.
"It's an outstanding pitching performance," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said afterward. "He made all the pitches. We had a lot of trouble getting to the top of the ball."
That's how good Lima was in this game. After two Redbird eight-spots, after two drubbings in the first two games of this series, he had the Cardinals popping up, striking out and throwing up their hands.
Look at that again. Those aren't spring training goose eggs. That's not a meaningless mid-summer pasting.
That's Lima Time at crunch time, ladies and gents. That's standing in the center of the arena, with your team down 0-2 in the series and in very real danger of being run right out of the sports pages. That's stepping up with your team riding the bum end of an eight-game postseason losing streak. That's as good as you'll see under the circumstances. It's the kind of performance -- with the weight of expectations, hope and dread in the air, with the echoes of history all around -- that make the playoffs great no matter which team you root for. David Ortiz and Rafael Furcal know a little something about the feeling, and now they have company.
In the first inning, Lima set down Walker, Pujols and Rolen in order. In the fourth, he did it again. In the sixth, it was Tony Womack, Walker and Pujols. And in the ninth, with the fans on their feet and Orel standing somewhere over his shoulder, he took down Pujols, Rolen and Jim Edmonds on three straight flyball outs to seal the deal.
"He's the big-game pitcher for the Dodgers," Shawn Green said afterward. "He's been great, he and Milton (Bradley) and Jayson Werth, they've been a great influence on our club, they've brought a lot more fire to this team."
Fire was the missing Dodger element in the first two games of the series. There was little evidence of the flint and spark they'd shown in late-season comebacks against Colordado and San Francisco. They were flat in St. Louis. Timid pitching, quiet bats. Steve Finley's granny was long gone. Odalis Perez's showdown strikeouts of Barry Bonds were a distant memory.
But Lima, who stood in the bullpen before the game, soaking up the moment, feeding off the crowd, looking like James Brown ready to storm the stage, changed all that. He came in and said, "Get up, get on up!" He made the series feel like a series. He put his team back in play.
"I was just tired of seeing all that red in St. Louis," Lima said. "I wanted to see some Dodger Blue. It was a different feeling here tonight, a different rhythm."
Of course, Lima wasn't the only one setting the pace. There were some well-timed cracks of the bat in the mix, as well.
With two outs in the third inning, after an 0-for-9 start in this series, Finley woke up with a two-run broken-bat double down the left field line, scoring Alex Cora and Brent Mayne and putting the Dodgers in the driver's seat for the first time in almost a week.
"At that point I'm just trying to put something out there and give us a chance," Finley said later.
"I think right now, with where this series is, that's the key to the series," Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said. "I talked about the first two games of the series and our inability to get a base hit with two outs and tonight we got one."
After Finley's hit, it was Green's turn to go pop. Green hit solo home runs in the fourth and the sixth innings, turning the tables a bit on the Cardinals' potent lineup and giving his pitcher all the room he'd need.
It's only one game, and Sunday, with Perez on the hill, Los Angeles has to do it all over again.
But thanks to Lima's wire-to-wire performance, the bullpen is rested, and what seemed impossible early Saturday afternoon only seems improbable to the Dodgers now.
Tracy says his club is ready to come after St. Louis again.
"I think aggression is something you have to implement and use both sides of the plate and get them swinging the bat," he said. "You have to do that."
Get them swinging the bat? Are they sure they want this Cardinals lineup, which has people pouring over the record books, swinging the bat?
So if they go out, it's unlikely they'll go out easy, even against the new Murderers' Row.
"I told myself, 'Go seven, and just give the ball to Gagne,'" Lima said at the end of the night. "Now, if we need Gagne (on Sunday), he can go three innings!
"And who knows," he said laughing. "If we win (Sunday), maybe I'll throw an inning on Monday."
After the way he looked Saturday, the Dodgers should be so lucky.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.