Cardinal machine returns

LOS ANGELES -- Dodger Stadium was jammed to the gills Sunday night. No empty seats, no late arrivers, just a stadium full of screaming, thunder-sticking, blue-and-white faithful.

Still goofy on the Lima juice from Saturday night, still giddy from the feeling of Steve Finley's grand slam the weekend before, they came ready to make a joyful noise.

It was the largest crowd in the 42-year history of the ballpark, 56,628 strong.

That was in the beginning. In the end, it took all of two guys in Cardinal red to shut 'em up and send 'em home. The night belonged to Jeff Suppan and Albert Pujols.

Suppan, a local boy, pitched the game his mama and papa dreamed about when he was a boy, going seven strong, giving up just two hits and two earned runs. He wasn't overpowering, he was just unflappable.

Dodgers left fielder Jayson Werth took him deep in the first inning, and for a moment it looked like maybe the Dodgers would be working some carry-over magic from Game 3.

But Suppan, who typifies the Cardinals staff this year -- strong and steady, rarely beating themselves -- didn't blink. He came back to get a groundball out from Finley and a lineout from Adrian Beltre to shut down the inning and stem the Dodger tide.

It was the same story all night. He didn't give up a hit after the third inning. He set down the Dodgers 1-2-3 in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings and then handed over the reins to the Cardinals 'pen.

It was the sort of performance a casual observer might call workman-like, but his teammates saw heroism in it.

"Jeff was awesome," Reggie Sanders said. "In his hometown, with the pressure on him, with what we needed from him, he really showed some guts, the guts we needed."

The Cardinals were heavy favorites coming into this series, but after Lima's performance on Saturday, their vaunted offense looked beatable and their staff looked vulnerable.

Suppan flipped that script, restored order, put the smart money back on the favorites.

Like all the Cardinals starters, he was an unlikely hero. His 16 wins this season were a career best, but nobody was talking about him as a world-beater when he took the hill Sunday, and he came into Game 4 after not pitching at all in the last 10 days.

"It's just unbelievable," an exuberant and champagne-soaked Ray King said afterward. "To go out and pitch seven strong innings like that, to go out and eat up innings and handle the heart of their order, after being out so long, it's just unbelievable."

Like Lima the night before, Suppan had his whole bag of tricks working.

"He was really changing speeds and working both sides of the plate," Finley said later. "I don't think we saw any of the same speeds or locations in any two at-bats all night."

Did he surprise the Dodgers hitters with what he had?

No, said Milton Bradley, but he sure handcuffed them.

"He kept hitting that inside spot with the cutter," Bradley said. "He'd just bust it in there time and time again and we couldn't do anything with it."

So with the Dodgers bats in check, Pujols took his customary spot center stage in the fourth inning. With two runners on, Wilson Alvarez (who'd come in to relieve an ineffective Odalis Perez) threw a 3-1 fastball that was up -- and not too fast. Pujols, shaking off Saturday night's 0-fer, said, "Thank you very much" and sent it deep into the left field seats.

The Cardinals were suddenly up 5-2, and the game was never again in doubt.

"Pujols is one of the best hitters in the game," Shawn Green said. "He got on top of that pitch and really drove it."

If Suppan's heroics popped a hole in the little hopeful Dodger balloon that floated into Chavez at the start of the night, it was Pujols' homer that really made this feel like a Cardinals game.

"For Albert to do that in that situation," Sanders (who hit a home run of his own) said, "it was just like old times, you know? It was just like it's been all year."

He's right. The crack of the bat, the flight of the ball, the whole thing felt inevitable, like it had to come sooner or later.

"For us to have beaten them would have been a big upset," Green said. "They have the best team in the league and when you face the middle of their lineup, just one after the other, you've really got to play flawless baseball to win."

And the Dodgers' pitchers played anything but.

Perez walked five in just 2 1/3 innings and looked, for the second time in this series, like he couldn't settle his stomach, his head or his arm. He was nowhere near the plate and never in the ballgame.

Alvarez didn't walk anyone, but his stuff was plenty inviting. And by the time manager Jim Tracy got to guys like Yhency Brazoban and Eric Gagne, it was way too late.

But more than what Perez and Alvarez didn't do, the night was about what Suppan and Pujols did do. They were the show.

"They were just better than we were," Beltre said.

"We left it all out there," Finley echoed. "Those guys are just stacked from top to bottom."

And now the show rolls back home to St. Louis, where the Cards will meet the winner of the Atlanta-Houston series on Wednesday night.

"It's a big win," Pujols said with bubbly dripping down his face. "But it's just the first step on the ladder. We need eight more."

The Astros and Braves better look alive. Because as the Dogers will tell them, this team tends to get what they need, and plenty of it.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.