A corked bottle sat atop the desk inside the visiting manager’s office at Busch Stadium. Dave Roberts swore its purpose was benign. Baseball does not award trophies for leading a division at the end of May.
“No, no, no,” Roberts cracked after the Dodgers finished a 9-4 victory over St. Louis and claimed first place in the National League West for the first time since April 6. “This is pinot noir!”
Roberts claimed he was not aware of the standings. A gleam in his eye gave him away — managers often say they are not aware of the standings, especially this early in the season. But after an ungainly April, in which the Dodgers hovered around .500 and allowed Colorado to zoom atop the leader board, the four-time defending champions of the West have roared ahead with 11 victories in 13 games.
To capture their sixth in a row Tuesday, the Dodgers (33-20) performed in far from elegant fashion. The offense built rallies around errors and walks. Kenta Maeda lasted only four innings. The defense committed three errors. The bullpen’s streak of scoreless innings ended at 24 2/3 when Chris Hatcher gave up a home run in the eighth.
Yet, the lineup still operated like a ruthless engine, vanquishing St. Louis starter Michael Wacha after three innings and feasting on the rest of the Cardinals pitching staff. Logan Forysthe reached base five times. Chase Utley doubled, triple and scored two runs. Enrique Hernandez drove in two runs. Chris Taylor scored three times.
In the aftermath, Roberts focused on the early-evening sloppiness. Roberts referred to his team’s play as “ugly.” He indicated the coaching staff is trying to diagnose why Maeda has struggled in the first inning. His fixation on the first few frames belies his level of confidence in his team: Even after a victory like this, when his team scored nine runs and won by five, invites room for improvement.
The evening featured an eerie similarity to a meeting between Maeda and Wacha last week. In both games, Maeda gave up three runs in the first inning before finding a relative groove. In both games, the Dodgers punished Wacha and booted him from the game early. On Tuesday, the Dodgers added a new wrinkle, producing a three-run rally in the fifth despite recording only one hit against the St. Louis bullpen.
The mid-game surge offset Maeda’s opening stumble. The Cardinals nearly buried him in the first. He yielded three runs before he secured an out. A questionable call by umpire Mark Wegner squeezed Maeda, but so did an error by Taylor, a newly converted outfielder, and Maeda’s own mistakes.
St. Louis outfielder Dexter Fowler stroked a leadoff single. With a full count to outfielder Tommy Pham, Fowler broke for second base. A fastball from Maeda appeared to catch a piece of the strike zone, down and away. Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal fired to second base, where a tag awaited Fowler.
Except . . .
Wegner called the pitch a ball. Pham trotted to first base. Fowler positioned himself at second. Both were in place when first baseman Matt Carpenter singled into center field, where Taylor was making his seventh appearance. His throw overshot the infielders, allowing Fowler to scoot home.
“We kicked the ball around, uncharacteristically,” Roberts said.
Two pitches later, Maeda watched Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina redirect a slider up the middle. The grounder trickled into the outfield for a two-run single.
Maeda needed 32 pitches to complete the first. In the second, he committed a throwing error on a bunt by Wacha. Maeda managed to strand runners at the corners. The recovery allowed his team to stay afloat.
“For us to be down 3-0 after the first, I guess was a good thing,” Roberts said.
The deficit disappeared in the third. A four-run flurry started with a walk by Forsythe. He scored on a sacrifice fly by Adrian Gonzalez. A walk by Taylor brought up Utley. He tagged an RBI ground-rule double.
Now came time for the Cardinals to play inept baseball. Hernandez smashed a liner up the middle. St. Louis second baseman Paul DeJong backhanded it but made a wild throw to first base. As the ball soared out of sight, two runs scored to give the Dodgers their first lead of the evening.
The advantage expanded in the fifth. The Dodgers capitalized on the imprecision of Cardinals reliever Tyler Lyons. After a single by Taylor, Lyons hit Utley, walked Hernandez and walked Yasiel Puig to force in a run. Called in to replace Lyons, new reliever John Brebbia walked pinch-hitter Franklin Gutierrez. Forsythe grounded into a fielder’s choice to drive home a third run.
The game required nearly four hours to complete. It was far from pretty. As the night ended, though, the Dodgers stood alone atop the West.
“To be in first, by ourselves, I think it’s good,” Roberts said. “But we all realize there’s a lot of baseball left.”