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Rolen roars onto scene

ST. LOUIS -- The cleanup hitter had a feeling it might be a good idea to mix in a hit sometime before November.

Good thinking.

The cleanup hitter, you see, just finished going 0-for-12 in the National League Division Series. And his team, those rampaging St. Louis Cardinals, won anyhow.

But the cleanup hitter was beginning to sense that going 0 for the whole month of October wouldn't be a real good idea. And just on the off chance that he might not have come to that conclusion on his own, Scott Rolen had that message hand-delivered to him the other day by his own, always-sympathetic, personal family members.

"That last game in L.A.," Rolen reported Wednesday night, "my brother told me -- and this is total (baloney), by the way: 'You know, you could at least go get the guys on the bench some water.' "

And when a guy is getting that kind of compassion from his loved ones, you can only imagine the empathy and understanding he is getting from total, red-shirted strangers. Not to mention talk-show callers.

So there may be no bigger development in the Cardinals' 10-7 scrunching of the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday than an actual sighting of an actual hit by Mr. Scott Rolen, No. 4 hitter in the Scariest Lineup in the Whole Darned National League.

It came in just the right spot, too. Fifth inning. Cardinals trailing, 4-3. The Astros blatantly pitching around No. 3 hitter Albert Pujols with the tying run on second to go at the cleanup man with two outs.

Cleanup hitters get paid to make the other team regret stuff like that in games like this. So it's now OK for the Cardinals to issue Rolen his paycheck -- because he thumped a game-tying single between third base and short. And his team would never trail again.

"Somebody said I was 0-for-14 before I got that hit," Rolen said afterward. "I thought I was only 0-for-2. I didn't know I had to go back to the first series and count all those at-bats."

Well, he didn't have to, we supposed. But the rest of us were sure counting. Because you just don't see hitters this good have series that bad -- and have their team rumble ahead and win the thing, anyway.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, in fact, Rolen was only the third player in history to go from a .300, 30-homer, 120-RBI regular season right into a postseason series in which he went 0 for the series.

The others were Mo Vaughn (0-for-14), for the 1995 Red Sox, and Frank Thomas (0-for-9), for the 2000 White Sox. But there was a big difference between them and Rolen:

They didn't get a second shot to remove those bagels from their postseason plates -- because their teams went home.

Rolen's team, on the other hand, survived to play again. And their cleanup man is, officially, eternally grateful.

He spoke Wednesday night about how the guys on this team don't think about their own numbers or their own agendas, because they're only interested in winning.

"So I don't even know who got hits and who didn't get hits," Rolen said. "When you win, that doesn't matter."

And after saying that, he was even able to maintain a straight face for another 1.6 seconds, before adding: "Then again, I was 0-for-14. So of course, I'm going to say that."

In fairness to Rolen, there's an excellent reason why he hasn't exactly Reggie Jacksoned his way through this postseason. He is playing through what has been officially described as a "strained calf." But if you watched him score from first on a Jim Edmonds double in the sixth, you had the feeling he would have preferred to call a cab when he got to third base.

Asked how that calf muscle was feeling, Rolen said, with just a touch of sarcasm: "Oh, it's wonderful. I can hardly stand it, it feels so good."

But he's playing. And it would have made an excellent excuse for going 0 for October, had Rolen chosen to make it one.

Not that he has. Or would, of course. And incidentally, it is, in fact, theoretically, possible for a team to win the World Series with its cleanup hitter going 0 for October.

Especially if that team is the Cardinals, a team that seems to look up during its pregame stretch and find it has already put about six runs on the scoreboard.

So when Rolen's manager, Tony La Russa, was asked about Rolen's visit to the Division Series bagel shop, the manager had no trouble spinning Rolen's funk with customary "we-won-so-who's-counting" eloquence.

"Sometimes, you have to go beyond the stats," La Russa said. "He was not a hitless hitter in the Dodgers series."

(Author's note: In other words, don't just go beyond the stats. Feel free to ignore them completely. Even make up your own stats if you'd like. ... OK, now back to the manager.)

"You watch his at-bats, he had tough base on balls," La Russa went on. "He hit the ball hard enough for some hits. What he did for us, cracking out tough at-bats for us in RBI situations, was the most important thing for us to have in that kind of (game)."

All those tough at-bats translated into zero RBI and one run scored, we're afraid. But on the bright side, Rolen did draw six walks in that Dodgers series. And some people would find a way to be heartened by those walks.

Scott Rolen, however, would not be one of those people.

Asked about La Russa's praise, Rolen chuckled: "That old walk's-as-good-as-a-hit thing is for a manager, not a player. I'll be honest. I felt a lot better getting that hit tonight than I did getting those walks."

And his teammates, for the record, seemed to share that sentiment.

"I always felt Scott was an any-day-now guy," said Reggie Sanders. "Hopefully, that big hit will get him right back on track."

Sure. Sounds good. But ... "maybe not," Rolen responded. "What did I do afterward? I punched out. So it could be that well already dried up on me. I got my one. Now I'm done."

Then again, there's a good chance he's not. Just as the Cardinals probably aren't done winning games in this series now that they've won the first one.

They trailed by two runs twice in this game (2-0 in the first, 4-2 in the fourth). And at the time, there were actually a few seconds where that seemed kind of ominous.

But not for long.

"It's almost like our hitters say, 'OK, boys. Let's go,' " said reliever Ray King. "And the next thing you know, all of a sudden we've got a 10 on the board."

This is a team so resourceful, there is no way to score that it doesn't specialize in. It led the league in batting average and slugging. It was third in home runs -- and (in case you didn't notice) second in stolen bases. So what's left?

Well, nobody keeps track of who leads the league in ugly hits. But the Cardinals have that art form down, too.

They got two huge hits in this game (one by Larry Walker, another by Sanders) in which half the bat wound up about 200 feet away from the ball.

They also scored a run on a 98-hop dribbler down the first-base line by Roger Cedeno, which Jeff Bagwell kindly fielded before it rolled foul.

And they scored another run when Walker got jammed, clunked a wounded-duck bloop into the shortstop hole and not only beat it out -- but thundered down the line so hard, he got Jose Vizcaino to rush his throw and bounce it past Bagwell.

Those hits mushroomed into a two-run fifth inning and a six-run sixth. And that eruption blew the competitive portion of this game to smithereens.

So the Cardinals had finally won the opener of an NLCS -- for the first time since 1987. (They'd lost three in a row in between.)

The winner of every Game 1 in the last 11 NLCS before this one has gone on to play in the World Series. So feel free to look at this game as probably the hugest game of the entire series. ... Or not.

"I think Game 1 is always important," Rolen deadpanned, "unless you lose it. But since we won it, I'll say it was big to take Game 1. Now hopefully we can win tomorrow -- so I can say Game 2 was a big game."

And hopefully, he'll get another hit or two -- so he can tell his brother what to do with that water tray.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.