ST. LOUIS -- Dodgers manager Jim Tracy called it the "turning point in the game." Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it a "classic" moment.
And Cardinals fans will be talking about it all day at the office Friday as they celebrate a 2-0 lead in the National League Division Series.
It was Cal Eldred vs. Steve Finley, the crucial test of faith among Busch Stadium faithful who had gone from all those curtain calls to sudden fits of worry, exasperation and scattered boos.
Finley had just added his name to Dodgers lore five days earlier with a grand slam that won the NL West. In fact, the Dodgers had led the Majors and broken a franchise record for grand slams in a season. Here was Finley on Thursday night in the fourth inning at tense Busch Stadium, facing Eldred, who had just walked two to load the bases and was left in the game after a mound visit by pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Eldred, making his playoff debut in a Major League career that started in 1991, started the postseason regular off with three straight balls. The third one was in the dirt, and catcher Mike Matheny was able to block it to prevent a run. There was nowhere to put Finley, and you just know he would have the green light to swing.
"That was about as bad [of] a looking situation as you can have," La Russa said. "We have been wild, walking guys all night. They hit a couple out [back-to-back homers that inning]. Then Cal comes in, walks a couple to load the bases. You've got Finley, who's a tiger with the bases loaded, and he gets down 3-0 on him, and I'm thinking, 'This is really bad.'
"But you know, with Cal, it's one of his great qualities: He's not afraid of anything. ... It was classic."
Then there was a called strike to make it 3-1. Suddenly the sellout crowd of 52,228 found hope. They began standing. Finley swung and missed at the best heat Eldred could muster. Now everyone was standing. This was playoff drama. Full count, and Finley, the grand-slam maker, sailed a fly to center that was caught by Jim Edmonds.
It was a crucial stop from Eldred, because the Dodgers had opened the inning with those back-to-back homers from Shawn Green and Milton Bradley -- and then chased starter Jason Marquis. This seemed to be the momentum shifter in this NLDS. The Dodgers never scored a run the rest of the game, and the Cards added five more.
If St. Louis should win Game 3 on Saturday to sweep this best-of-five series, there will be two especially important defining moments: the Cardinals' five-run third inning that started with Larry Walker's two-out homer in Game 1, and Eldred ending what shaped up as a disaster in the fourth inning of Game 2. It also speaks volumes for the series so far: Cards succeed with two out; not so for the Dodgers.
"I think it was a very big turning point in the game," Tracy said of the Eldred-Finley matchup. "The game was tied and a 3-0 count. He got a good pitch to swing at on 3-1, and then [Eldred] got him to fly out. That was our opportunity, and I think the big key to the game is that they cashed in on a couple of two-out opportunities, and we had opportunities, the one we're talking about.
Cal Eldred / P
Weight: 240 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"If we could get the lead there, we put ourselves in a pretty good position because with the pitchers that we didn't use on Tuesday, the opportunity would have been there to shorten the game up. ... They got the big two-out hits, we didn't."
Matheny said it was "a turning point for us. That could have really exploded into something big. Cal gets just like that, he feels too good. It's been awhile since he's been out there, and he was anxious. This atmosphere here with the fans and the excitement brings a little bit extra out of you, and sometimes it brings too much. Cal was just a little jumpy ... [but] he got his feet underneath him and then started making pitches and got Finley to pop up. That's when the situation turned."
Eldred is 36 and made his Major League debut over 13 years ago. Danny Haren, who pitched two brilliant relief innings, is 24 and a rookie. Both of them were making their postseason debuts in Game 2, and that fact was not lost on La Russa.
"What's interesting is the fact that Cal was more excited than Dan," La Russa said. "I mean, 14 years [Eldred's big-league debut was 1991], and his first postseason appearance. He was really excited, and he comes out and gets us two outs, the biggest out of the game with Finley. Cal had a big smile on his face the rest of the game.
"Dan, he's a cool dude, man. He's tough as nails, and he gave us two big innings. Really, it turned the momentum because they were doing a lot of stuff, and all of a sudden there's two innings with zeroes until the last part of the game. They both did the job. It's just interesting to me that Cal was like the rookie and Dan was like the veteran."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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