ST. PETERSBURG -- As a chaotic inning swirled around him, Colby Rasmus knew he had a simple job. He needed to get a pitch to hit from Tampa Bay reliever J.P. Howell, put a good swing on it and keep the Cardinals' two-out eighth-inning rally going.
With two men on base, both the result of walks, Rasmus took a fastball for a strike. He had a notion that the next pitch would be a slider, but still adjusted when Howell came with another fastball. Rasmus turned on the pitch, drilling it 392 feet to right field for a three-run homer that stretched the Cardinals' lead to five runs.
And though it may have looked like window dressing at the time, the blast turned out to be absolutely essential. Rasmus' homer provided critical insurance as St. Louis held on for a 5-3 win over Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field Friday night.
The home run capped a bizarre sequence in which four members of the Rays were ejected by two different umpires. With St. Louis leading, 2-0, Howell retired the first two batters of the inning before walking Lance Berkman on a pitch that the Rays thought should have been a strike.
Manager Joe Maddon was livid at the decision, and his argument got him ejected. After a balk and another walk, Rasmus throttled a three-run homer off Howell to put the game out of reach. From there, Howell blew up, and had to be restrained from home plate umpire Vic Carapazza. Howell had been ejected before Rasmus finished his trot around the bases. Elliot Johnson and David Price were also ejected.
"I wasn't even thinking about what they were doing, because it doesn't matter," he said. "Just trying to focus on what my approach was going up to the plate, and sticking with it. Them doing all that stuff doesn't matter."
It was Rasmus' fourth home run in seven games, after he hit five in his previous 71. His five RBIs in the past three games are more than he had in the 21 before that. He has provided a vital lift for the Cardinals' offense in the time since Albert Pujols went down to injury.
"Colby's got so much talent that when he gets into a game, a lot of good things happen," manager Tony La Russa said. "Boy, if he could keep that up, he doesn't have to hit three-run homers, but just good at-bats, which he's been having. ... He's got the kind of swing that, when he repeats it, he should be a .300 hitter. Singles, doubles, steal bases, and hit some home runs."
The insurance meant that Jake Westbrook was credited with a win that he certainly pitched well enough to deserve. Westbrook tossed seven shutout innings for his best start in six weeks, but after the outbursts, Tampa Bay hung three runs on rookie reliever Lance Lynn. That pulled the home team back into the game before Fernando Salas closed it out.
Westbrook battled a couple of hiccups early before settling in to mow down the last 12 hitters he faced, allowing less than three runs for the first time since he pitched eight shutout innings on May 21. Coincidentally, that was also Westbrook's last start on the road against an American League foe, a 3-0 win in Kansas City.
Westbrook worked right on the edges of the strike zone, taking the corners as Carapazza gave them to him, to strike out seven Rays over seven innings. He hadn't walked more than seven in any two starts since an eight-K game on May 5.
"It took me a little while to get into a groove," Westbrook said, "but the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings, I was able to get ahead, control some counts and I guess it worked out for the better. It took me a while to get into that rhythm, and once I did... I made some pitches early on when I needed to, got into some jams but made some pitches and I was able to get into that rhythm."
The Rays managed a total of two hits off of Westbrook, both of them singles. He is 5-2 in nine road starts this year.
"He had a good sinker, and he really just did a great job of throwing balls on both sides of the plate," said Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld. "He really didn't give us a whole lot to hit."
The veteran right-hander had been touched for four runs in each of his past three starts. He had finished the sixth inning exactly once in his previous six outings. And yet on Friday, he was in control on the way to his seventh win of the season.
The Cards won their fourth straight after losing 12 of 15. With the Brewers' loss to the Twins, St. Louis moved into first place in the NL Central by one game.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.