LOS ANGELES -- As majestic and crucial as Matt Holliday's third-inning home run may have been on Tuesday night, the long ball that garnered most of the postgame attention was the one Shane Robinson poked over the left-field fence in his seventh-inning pinch-hit at-bat.
It wasn't nearly as authoritative a blast, but there was an appreciation for how difficult it is to do damage off the bench with such sporadic appearances. For all the effort manager Mike Matheny makes during the regular season to give his bench players spot starts, that playing time all but disappears in the postseason.
Coming into Tuesday's 4-2 win in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, Robinson had taken just two at-bats since Sept. 29.
"There is a little challenge there," Robinson said a day after his career highlight. "It's more mentally challenging than physically. I mean, everyone out there on the bench can go out there and produce and hit and whatnot, but mentally staying sharp and trying not to do too much when you get your opportunities is the tough thing."
The Cardinals' five-player bench is not viewed as a strong suit on a team that entered Wednesday one win away from advancing to the World Series. No team had a lower pinch-hit batting average than the Cards' .201 during the regular season. That was when they had contributions, too, from Matt Adams, who hit .314 with three homers and nine RBIs as a pinch-hitter.
With Allen Craig still recovering from a foot injury, Adams has been thrust into the everyday lineup. This postseason, the Cardinals are 2-for-12 off the bench. Robinson's homer was the first RBI produced by the unit.
"One of the most difficult positions in this game [is] not the guy that gets to go out and grind every day, [but] the guy that tries to stay sharp without having game experience," Matheny said. "But you look at Shane Robinson walking into a game last night and being able to do what he did, that just shows the extra effort he's had to put in to try and be ready.
"You don't want anybody complacent with being the guy that's going to be out there every once in a while. They all need to want to be out there. That takes a whole lot of work to try and stay sharp, which, hats off to our staff for the guys and the work they're putting in -- [assistant hitting coach] Bengie Molina and [hitting coach] John Mabry -- with trying to keep these guys ready to go when the time comes."
Matheny, Cards laud young players on pickoff
LOS ANGELES -- Rookie Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez's pickoff in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series was so deft, so daring, it was still worth talking about a day later at Dodger Stadium.
"It's a big risk," said shortstop Pete Kozma, who was on the back end of the play, "but that's what the postseason is about."
In the seventh inning, the 22-year-old Martinez and the Cards were nursing a 4-2 lead. Dodgers pinch-hitter Nick Punto awakened the sellout crowd with a one-out double. With Punto leading toward third base and Carl Crawford batting, Martinez wheeled and fired a fastball to Kozma covering second for an enormous out.
Martinez then breezed through the eighth inning, Trevor Rosenthal worked around a single in the ninth and the Cardinals wrapped up the victory to move within one win of the World Series.
"That all happened so fast that I'm not involved, [catcher Yadier Molina is] not involved," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's Pete Kozma. Really, if Carlos doesn't turn around and take a peek, that is probably an easily stolen base.
"Nobody could hear anybody at that particular time, because the noise was so loud. But Pete saw an opportunity. Really, hat's off to a young player to not just try to get the pitcher to step off, but try to create a play. Now, after that, it goes straight into the hands of Carlos, which more often than not, you're going to see even a veteran pitcher who has had a lot of experience step off and just try to stop him from running.
"But Carlos' athleticism took over. His instincts and aggressiveness and faith and trust in himself turned into an incredible play. I think you really have a handful of guys at most in this league that could pull that play off in any situation, let alone the situation we were in last night."
"I felt relaxed in the game," Martinez said through a translator, "and thank God I was able to focus on that play and focus on the game that allowed me to pick off Punto."
Was it a risky play?
Darn right it was, said right fielder Carlos Beltran.
"Oh my goodness," said Beltran, who actually missed the play. "I was kidding when I came to the dugout, because I said, 'What happened?' I just put my head down, and all of a sudden, the guy was out. ... It's a risky play, man. Every time you make a play like that with pitchers, when they have to turn -- and Martinez, a guy throwing 99 -- I was like, 'Wow, if he made a bad throw, it's going to be terrible.' Thank God he made a perfect throw and Kozma was there to get the guy out.
"I don't really like to see it in tight ballgames, but I guess he felt it was a good time to [try] that play. That kid [Martinez] is a special kid. He doesn't seem scared on the mound. He wants to have the baseball. He wants to be there. I really enjoy watching him, because for being so young and so confident, that's very nice."
Matheny manages with urgency in Game 4 win
LOS ANGELES -- A day after taking the opening game of their National League Championship Series against the Dodgers last Friday, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny remarked that a series of non-moves loomed large in his team's ability to eventually capture the 13-inning win. If that game was defined by moves not made, Tuesday night's Game 4 victory was built upon a series of decisions that went right.
Matheny stuck with Lance Lynn just long enough. The manager inserted Pete Kozma as a defensive replacement in the sixth and then watched Kozma make a handful of key plays late at shortstop. Carlos Martinez handled a two-inning relief assignment. And there were no repercussions for taking out three-hole hitter Matt Holliday for defensive purposes in the seventh inning.
"I think it was just one of those games. Yesterday, some things fell into place," Matheny said. "Yesterday, we ended up doing them and some guys came in and did some very special stuff. ... I'm a hypocrite if I start preaching urgency and I don't manage with urgency."
The riskiest move, Matheny conceded, was pulling Holliday, who had earlier put the Cardinals ahead with his second postseason homer. It's a move that Matheny made several times this season, though usually not until the eighth inning. He had also seen it backfire, in particular in an August game against the Pirates where Pittsburgh twice pitched around the top of the batting order once Holliday's middle-of-the-order spot had been assumed by a pitcher.
But with Shane Robinson having just been used a pinch-hitter, Matheny had to make the change in the seventh or not make it at all.
"It's a gamble," Matheny said. "That's something that I've spent a lot of time talking to not just our coaches, but coaches through the Minor Leagues, coaches in other organizations; [they] talk to me about improving your defense late in a game. Some of them said they will do it no matter what. I don't like it ... especially when you're talking about replacing three- and four-hole hitters. It's a big move. You're taking the risk of that offensive spot coming back up and not having a key guy in there."
• After giving Daniel Descalso the start in Game 4, Matheny turned back to Kozma for Wednesday's Game 5 start at shortstop. Kozma made several key defensive plays late in Tuesday's win, and the Cardinals know that Game 5 starter Joe Kelly has a propensity to induce a lot of groundouts.
• Though the Cards did not hold batting practice before Wednesday afternoon's game, injured first baseman Allen Craig did take to the field to run. Craig has been increasing his level of baseball activity since getting clearance from a foot surgeon last week.
• The Cardinals are the first team in Major League history to have four rookies make at least four relief appearances in one postseason. Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist have each already surpassed that threshold. Combined, they've posted a 1.67 ERA in 16 2/3 innings.
• Robinson estimated that he received about 70 calls and texts from family and friends after hitting a pinch-hit home run in the Cards' 4-2 win over the Dodgers in Game 4. It was the first postseason pinch-hit blast by a Cardinals player since Chris Duncan went deep in Game 5 of the 2006 NLCS.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.