LOS ANGELES -- Despite winning just twice on this seven-game West Coast swing, the Cardinals leave Los Angeles on Sunday still looking down on all the teams eyeing the Wild Card spot they still hold.
After the Cards were held scoreless for 10 innings, Jon Jay ripped a two-out, two-strike double that manager Mike Matheny described afterward as one of the "biggest hits of the year right now." It's a label that's hard to counter, as Jay's first hit in six at-bats on the day drove home the go-ahead run in a critical 5-2, 12-inning victory at Dodger Stadium.
"Every win is big," Jay said. "Every game is our most important game. We know what's at stake. We've been here before. We know what we have to do."
The lead for the second National League Wild Card was up for grabs on Sunday. Because the Dodgers and Cardinals entered with 76-70 records, one team was guaranteed to exit with a one-game advantage. It's the Cardinals, who managed to lose only a half-game over their nearest Wild Card competition despite not winning a series on this road trip.
"I don't know if must-win is the right phrase, but it was pretty darn close to a must-win," said Jason Motte, who ended a day in which the Cards' bullpen tossed six scoreless innings. "You see the scoreboard before the game ... you know where everybody is."
"That was a big win," added starter Adam Wainwright. "If we lost today, you run the risk of guys hanging their heads. I don't think this group would do it, but you still run the risk of it. It was a good win to avoid that."
Jay's opportunity to hit in the 12th was a credit to the Cardinals' pitching staff and particularly to the bullpen for even getting the game there.
Wainwright set the tone with a six-inning start marred only by Andre Ethier's game-tying, two-run blast in the third. It followed a walk to eight-hole hitter Matt Treanor.
Wainwright otherwise allowed only four other hits. He maneuvered around a leadoff double by Matt Kemp in the sixth inning in order to exit with the game tied at 2.
"It didn't really matter to me as long as we won that game," Wainwright said. "We just had to win that game."
With Edward Mujica (workload) and Mitchell Boggs (lower back tightness) unavailable, Matheny knew he'd have to rely heavily on some of his lesser experienced pitchers. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal was called upon first and did a superb job. He struck out four in two scoreless innings.
The bounceback came after Rosenthal took a loss two days ago when he couldn't hold a lead. That was in just his 12th Major League appearance.
"I just feel fortunate to be able to come in in those big situations and earn respect from my teammates, first of all, and then the coaching staff to keep putting me in those situations," Rosenthal said.
Fernando Salas pitched two scoreless frames next and did a masterful job escaping potential game-ending trouble in the 10th. The Dodgers advanced a runner to third with one out. After intentionally walking Ethier, Salas ended the threat by getting Matt Kemp to fly out.
Rookie Shelby Miller took the mound in the 11th and worked around a single. It was the only one of Miller's three big league appearances that have come with a game on the line.
"To see him have that poise, that's very impressive to go along with the stuff," Matheny said. "I think Rosenthal has earned that [opportunity] already [to pitch in high-leverage spots]. I think Shelby is still earning his stripes. But today was obviously a huge step in that direction."
With the Cardinals scoring an inning after Miller entered, the organization's top pitching prospect was also sent off with his first Major League win.
"It's obviously a moment to remember for me," Miller said. "It's unbelievable. Not a lot of people get their first win in the big leagues and I have now. It's one of the top things that have happened in my life so far."
The achievement was solidified by Jay, who came to bat with Matt Carpenter on second and two outs in the 12th. Facing John Ely, he doubled off a changeup. Crucial, too, was the Cardinals' ability to tack on.
Three batters later, the Cardinals added an insurance run when the Dodgers couldn't turn an Allen Craig grounder into an inning-ending forceout. Yadier Molina drew a bases-loaded walk to force home another.
Motte, who blew his seventh save of the year on Saturday, closed out the win without issue.
"It's one of those games where everybody is trying to make pitches and trying to scratch for a run," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who used a franchise-record 10 pitchers. "We couldn't do it."
It was, at least, an uplifting ending to a road trip during which the Cardinals struggled to sustain any momentum on offense. That's why the club heads home having lost five of its last seven, even though the starting pitching provided a 3.55 ERA during that span.
The offense stirred early against Dodgers starter Stephen Fife and nearly knocked him out of his fourth Major League start before he got through an inning. But after jumping out to a 2-0 lead, the Cardinals left two stranded with Fife's strikeouts of David Freese and Skip Schumaker.
Those were the first of the Dodgers' 15 strikeouts. Fife had nine of them and settled down enough to make it through five innings.
"We had a tough time today," Matheny said. "You look at the scoreboard and all those Ks.... We fought to get anything going, but fortunately it happened at the right time."
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.