- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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ST LOUIS -- On this night the workhorse was a thoroughbred.
On this night the outcast was the leader of the pack.
Vicente Padilla, signed by the Dodgers to eat innings and fill gaps in the second half of the season, signed just weeks after the Texas Rangers had unceremoniously kicked him to the curb, pitched the game of his life on this night.
"It's the best we've seen him," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said in the postgame interview room. "In fact, it's the longest we've seen him."
Padilla had only gone as long as six innings in any one start since coming over for the Dodgers, and conventional wisdom said Los Angeles would have to go deep into its bullpen to pull out a win against the St. Louis Cardinals and starter Joel Pineiro in Game 3 on Saturday.
But for seven chilly innings under the Arch, Padilla flat-out owned the home team, walking only one, striking out four, giving up just four hits and allowing zero runs. Along with a two-run Andre Ethier home run that gave the Dodgers a 3-0 lead in the third inning, Padilla silenced a packed Busch Stadium house, leading Los Angeles to a 5-1 victory and a three-game sweep of the National League Division Series and sending it on to the NLCS next Thursday night in Los Angeles.
"He pitched like an ace for us," said Game 2 hero Mark Loretta. "He came out like he had something to prove and just pounded the strike zone all night long."
Padilla relied heavily on a four-seam fastball that sank like a stone, throwing it for strikes 78 percent of the time he went to it, and challenging hitters when the Cardinals got runners on (St. Louis hitters, who managed a paltry .133 average with runners in scoring position in the series, were 0-for-5 against Padilla in that situation Saturday night).
"He was unbelievable," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake sputtered from beneath a cascade of champagne afterward. "He has a chance to do that every time he takes the mound. He throws that sinking fastball at 95 miles an hour and it's just so tough to hit, it's just not ever a fun at-bat."
Padilla had come to the Dodgers looking more like a question mark than the answer man. The buzz out of Texas was that he had attitude problems and wasn't a good teammate, and his ERA with the Rangers was an uninspiring 4.92 over 108 innings.
But Dodgers left-hander Randy Wolf, who played with Padilla in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2005, felt a fresh start in L.A. would do his old friend good, and he was confident he could fit in well in the Dodgers' clubhouse.
"From the very beginning I thought he was going to be a big pickup for us," Wolf said, still dripping wet from the last of the postgame hootenanny. "I knew the kind of stuff he has, and I knew what kind of guy he was, how much he wants to win, how tough he is inside."
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, balancing a champagne flute in his left hand like a jaunty sommelier and leaning on the wall outside manager Joe Torre's office, basking in the moment, echoed Wolf, saying that mental toughness was the reason he brought Padilla in.
To win a game in a postseason series, to come up stones in front of the biggest crowd in Busch Stadium history (47,296 fans desperate to go wild, anxious for any sign of weakness), you need a mean streak, a fire in your gut.
"We knew he had this in him," Colletti said. "We knew a night like this was a possibility. He knows how to pitch. And he's fearless. Coming in here, it's a tough place to play, and you better be prepared to attack. And he was."
Standing dumbstruck in a quiet hallway around the corner from where his teammates were emptying the last bottles of bubbly, Padilla was more humble than fierce, suggesting what drove him more than anything when his team needed him most was a sense of gratitude and happiness for all that's changed for him in these last few months.
"All my life I'm a workhorse. All my life, this is the best thing in baseball that ever happened to me," he said, quietly explaining his emotions through a translator. "I'm very happy to have had this opportunity. I thank God Joe Torre gave me this chance."
Padilla was the hero in Game 3 because for the third straight time the Cardinals failed to capitalize on their opportunities. They loaded the bases in the first inning, and the home crowd waved their towels and raised their voices, and you thought for a minute that the Central Division champions were on the comeback trail, steeled by the frustration of their hard-luck loss in Game 2. But catcher Yadier Molina tapped out weakly to shortstop and the red-clad faithful sat down and were never really given a reason to rise up again.
Matt Holliday, no doubt anxious to erase the memory of his tide-turning error in Game 2, went 0-for-4 and twice came up short with runners on base. Resident stud Albert Pujols singled twice and drove in a run, but it was too little and too late to make a difference.
SERIES BATTING STATS
"That's a great club over there," Blake said. "Any time you sweep the Cardinals I mean it just doesn't happen. But the thing is, our whole club, we just never felt like we were overmatched by anybody this year. We believed we could do this."
Outside of Padilla's stellar turn, the Dodgers were simply methodical. Matt Kemp scratched out an infield single in the first inning and Manny Ramirez drove him in with a double to the gap in left-center. Rafael Furcal pulled a ball into shallow right in the second and Andre Ethier followed with a home run -- his second of the series -- deep over the right-field wall. Opportunities and cash-ins. Steady as she goes.
"We just showed up and focused on the task at hand," Ethier said afterward. "We stayed in the moment and had a lot of fun doing it."
As fun as it was, to a man the club said when this one was over that they were just beginning.
"It feels incomplete," Wolf explained. "This is a great feeling to be in the NLCS. But we have eight more games to win. The good thing about last year is guys got a taste of it, but they want more."
If they can get more of what they got on this night from Padilla the workhorse, there's a good shot this taste is only the beginning.
"First meeting of the year, spring training, Joe sits down," Ethier said in the interview room. "First words out of his mouth are, 'Our goal is to win the World Series from this day forward moving on.' We put all these games in the season, 162, behind us. We put these three behind us. This series behind us. This clinch. We're just closer to our goal."
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.