LOS ANGELES -- In the Cardinals' search for rotation stability, they found Carlos Martinez, antsy for the opportunity to get a sustained look as a starter. The Cardinals called upon him twice earlier this month for spot starts, both games the club went on to win.
They did so behind Martinez on Friday night, too, this time in his first appearance since the Cardinals' formidable rotation suddenly found itself fractured by injury.
He maneuvered through trouble early, carried a lead into fifth and watched the bullpen seal the 3-1 win over the Dodgers in front of 48,159 at Dodger Stadium. Yadier Molina had the game-tying hit, Jhonny Peralta the go-ahead one, but it was stellar defensive play, in particular, that evened the four-game series.
"If we didn't play the defense we did today," Peralta said afterward, "I think we lose the game."
The stack of defensive gems was thick, and started with Peralta's smooth play on a Yasiel Puig grounder to close the second inning with a runner on third.
Right fielder Allen Craig contributed two highlights, first a sliding catch to end the third and then a terrific play in the corner to halt A.J. Ellis' attempt at a fourth-inning double. Both plays came behind Martinez, the second one just after the Cardinals had tied the game.
"That's one of the best plays we've ever seen Allen Craig make," manager Mike Matheny said. "He was just aggressive."
And yet, Jon Jay's defensive highlight, which came with the Cardinals ahead by two, may have been the best of the bunch. The center fielder made a sprawling catch while running back to rob Juan Uribe of an extra-base hit in the sixth. That inning would close with Molina throwing out his 18th runner of the season.
"Can of corn," Craig said of Jay's play, before cracking a smile. "No, he made a great play. He was running his heart out. That's kind of a fearless play right there, diving and catching. It came at a great time in the game. It was huge."
It was also the difference in the Cardinals reaching the midpoint of the season on the upswing. It was a reminder, too, of how crucial the little things continue to be in a season when the club has now had 40 of its 81 games decided by two or fewer runs.
"I would have guessed 60," Matheny said, before adding that the stress of the season could be a long-term benefit by building up resiliency.
The Dodgers had the early advantage, working Martinez to 47 pitches in the first two innings and swarming the bases in both. Martinez worked out of bases-loaded trouble in the first before allowing a run when Dee Gordon snuck a single past Matt Adams in the second. Martinez helped himself out of the inning by tagging Miguel Rojas out at the plate as he tried to capitalize on a pitch that scooted away from Molina.
Martinez would then reach base twice himself before the Dodgers would again.
"Tonight was one of those bigger challenges," Martinez said, with bullpen catcher Roberto Espinoza interpreting. "I had a lot of runners on base. I followed what Yadi told me and focused on my pitches and focused on the strike zone."
Molina snapped the team's string of 12 scoreless innings with his solo homer in the fourth. The Cardinals then took the lead in the fifth on Peralta's two-out, two-run double that dropped between two Dodgers outfielders.
"It's one of those balls that [right fielder] Yasiel's not going to get to it, and [center fielder] Scott [Van Slyke] could've gotten to it, but he definitely feels Yasiel coming in," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I think that play gets magnified in the sense that it's a close game and every play counts."
The runs were charged to Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, who had previously kept the Cardinals without an earned run in 14 innings. The double extended Peralta's hitting streak to eight games and followed two at-bats Ryu had won with strikeouts.
"In that situation, I'm looking for the fastball the whole at-bat and he threw me a fastball right away and down the middle," Peralta said. "I got a good swing."
Matheny made the call to remove Martinez at a season-high 82 pitches after a one-out hit and walk in the fifth. Martinez's troubles finding a rhythm out of the stretch made the decision relatively routine. Seth Maness then executed a sinker away to induce the inning-ending double play, the start of his 2 1/3-inning scoreless appearance.
"That's our double-play guy," Matheny said.
Sam Freeman, Pat Neshek and Trevor Rosenthal covered the final 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.