Dodgers head back to NLCS behind Ethier, Ramirez and Padilla

ST. LOUIS -- Unemployed in August and a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers in October. Once Vicente Padilla got out of the first inning, he slammed the door on the St. Louis Cardinals' season.

The second-chance pitcher kept Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday quiet in a 5-1 victory Saturday night that gave Los Angeles a second straight trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Anytime you win a series it's good," Casey Blake said. "But to sweep the Cardinals, it just doesn't happen. I would have never guessed we would have swept them."

The Dodgers got their sweep in a series that will be remembered most for Holliday's pivotal dropped fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2.

Andre Ethier missed the cycle by a single, Manny Ramirez had three hits and two RBIs and the Dodgers didn't need another St. Louis fielding blunder to sweep their division series opponent for a second straight season. Los Angeles scored all five runs with two outs.

Closer Jonathan Broxton struck out Rick Ankiel for the last out and pumped his fist as the Dodgers ran out to the mound to celebrate becoming the first team to advance to the championship series. They await the winner of the Philadelphia-Colorado series that is even at a game apiece. The Phillies beat Los Angeles in the NLSC last season in five games.

Pujols and Holliday were a combined 2 for 8 with a late RBI for the Cardinals, who never recharged after becoming the first National League team to clinch a division title. Counting the postseason St. Louis was 1-9 after wrapping up the NL Central, and was swept for the first time in the division series or NLCS play and only for the third time overall in the postseason.

This team and the 1928 team that got swept in the World Series by the Yankees are the only teams in franchise history to fail to win a game in the postseason.

"It's hard to believe we're thinking about next year," Ryan Ludwick said. "It just seems a long way away."

Pujols, 3 for 10 with an RBI and no extra-base hits in the series, left Busch Stadium without speaking to reporters. Holliday was 2 for 12 with a solo homer.

"For some reason, our offense, we couldn't get anything going," Holliday said. "We had some good at-bats here or there but as far as stringing anything together we had a hard time."

Padilla, designated for assignment by the Rangers in early August, was 4-0 the final month with the Dodgers before shutting down the Cardinals on four hits over seven innings in his first career postseason appearance. After escaping a bases-loaded jam in the first inning he was dominant, retiring 19 of 21 hitters against a team he last faced in 2003.

"Big lineup," Padilla said through an interpreter. "I just tried to make the pitches that I knew I was capable of throwing."

The Dodgers were already up 3-0 in the third inning when starter Joel Pineiro dropped Pujols' simple toss at first for an error on James Loney's grounder for the lifeless Cardinals, who were beset by bad play this series.

Holliday got a standing ovation from a sellout crowd of 47,296 before his first at-bat with two men on and one out in the first. Then he tapped out to the mound. Pfft.

Over and over, he said he was touched by the ovation. Even if it was a recruiting pitch for a player headed for free agency.

"Whatever it was, I'm appreciative of it," Holliday said. "Obviously that was a hard pill for me to swallow, that ball. To get that kind of acknowledgment, I'm very appreciative."

Ramirez, only 1 for 8 the first two games amid suggestions by manager Joe Torre that he was trying too hard, gave the Dodgers the early lead with a two-out RBI double in the first.

"I was just trying to be more aggressive," Ramirez said. "Anything on the plate, I was ready for."

Ethier, who had only one homer in the last 12 games of the regular season, jumped on a 3-1 pitch for a two-run shot that made it 3-0 in the third. It was his second homer of the series.

"To show up now and contribute and be a main guy, it's nice to come through," Ethier said.

Ronnie Belliard singled to start the fourth, stole second and scored on Rafael Furcal's single for a 4-0 cushion.

That was more than enough for the Dodgers, who were 2-5 against the Cardinals during the regular season with all the games between mid-July and mid-August when St. Louis was its best.

Joel Pineiro, a 15-game winner and the last of the Cardinals' big three starters to come up empty, allowed four runs in four innings in an outing that matched his shortest of the season. The sinkerball specialist allowed only 11 homers in the regular season, but surrendered five in his last three starts.

The Cardinals' demise, though, was due to the failure of an offense beefed up with the acquisitions of Holliday, Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo since late June. St. Louis was 4 for 30 (.133) with runners in scoring position against an underrated Dodgers pitching staff, totaling six runs and stranding 28 runners.

One of them, Yadier Molina, doubled with one out in the seventh and than ran into an easy out on a groundball in front of him.

Furcal, the Dodgers' leadoff man, had two hits and was 7 for 12 in the series with two RBIs. Ethier was 6 for 12 with three RBIs after getting no RBIs in his first 37 career postseason at-bats.

John Smoltz struck out five in two innings. The Cardinals finally broke through on Pujols' run-scoring single off Broxton in the eighth.

The Cardinals totaled three or fewer runs in 18 of their last 33 games. They fell to 6-2 in division series in 14 seasons under manager Tony La Russa.

"I've ended playoffs 14 times this way," Smoltz said. "It's never easy. You always think you're going to win the next game."

Game notes
Matt Morris, who pitched for five Cardinals postseason teams, threw out the ceremonial first pitch with Chris Carpenter on the receiving end. ... Attendance of 47,296 was the largest at 4-year-old Busch Stadium. ... Cardinals 3B DeRosa played for the Cubs last year and has been on the wrong end of Dodgers first-round sweeps the last two years.