LOS ANGELES -- For all that has been made about the improved stability at the back end of the Cardinals' bullpen, Friday's middle-relief meltdown again exposed a hole this club has been fighting to mask for most of the season.
Los Angeles scored seven of the game's final eight runs in its 8-5 victory over the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium. Five of those runs came off the Cards' bullpen, which was charged with locking down the one-run lead starter Joe Kelly handed over. The biggest blow -- on a night when the two clubs combined for five home runs -- was the last of that bunch, a three-run, go-ahead blast by Luis Cruz in the sixth.
The Dodgers, whose bullpen contrastingly held strong in its 4 2/3 innings, never let the Cardinals back in. That allowed Los Angeles to reduce the Cardinals' lead for the second National League Wild Card spot to one game.
"Obviously, as you could tell, I thought we swung real well vs. their starter and got some good pitches to hit and took advantage of them," said Matt Carpenter, whose solo homer was one of three dingers St. Louis hit early off starter Chris Capuano. "But their bullpen came in and did a really good job throwing strikes and making pitches."
That was precisely what the Cardinals' relief corps couldn't do.
While Kelly never lost a lead, the Cardinals starter twice let the Dodgers pull to within one. He fell behind hitters with regularity, and with the heart of the Dodgers' order coming up in the sixth, manager Mike Matheny ended Kelly's day instead of risking further damage.
"He was fighting," Matheny said. "It was one of those days where we needed the bullpen to come in and pick him up in those middle innings."
Needing someone to bridge the gap from Kelly to the late-inning sequence of Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte, Matheny turned to rookie Trevor Rosenthal. The decision to go with Rosenthal over either of his two lefty relievers, Matheny explained afterward, came with little debate, even though two of the first three batters Rosenthal were to face hit from the left side.
"To me, Rosenthal has been throwing the ball as good as anybody we have right now," Matheny said. "We've been continuing to put him in high-leverage situations and he's thrown the ball well. There's lots of options, but right there I feel very good about him coming in."
Rosenthal, who had contributed two scoreless innings already this road trip, allowed a leadoff single to Andre Ethier. With two outs, he plunked Hanley Ramirez.
Matheny saw it time to turn the inning over to Mujica. It did not, however, end uneventfully.
A first-pitch changeup -- one that Luis Cruz appeared to be anticipating -- was deposited over the left-field wall. Cruz, whose three-run homer helped down the Cardinals back on July 23, had provided deja vu with his fifth home run.
"I came in and tried to throw my best pitch, my changeup, to try and get a ground ball in that situation right there," Mujica said. "They know I'm going to throw the changeup. They just make an adjustment. It's my best pitch, but I just leave it right in the middle. I mean, like, right in the middle."
Mujica, who began his tenure in St. Louis with 18 straight scoreless appearances, has now been scored upon in two of his last three games. Afterward, he denied that recent results had anything to do with fatigue.
The bullpen unraveled further in the seventh, as Los Angeles scored twice more when Matt Holliday came up short in his diving attempt to nab a looping liner by Adrian Gonzalez. Both runs were charged to reliever Sam Freeman, who opened the inning by giving up a walk and a single. Gonzalez's hit came off lefty Marc Rzepczynski, the Cardinals' third pitcher of the frame.
Seven of the eight Dodger runs on Friday, including those final two, came with two outs. Los Angeles hadn't scored more than four runs in any of its last nine games.
"The positive thing out of tonight was the fact they got out to an early lead, had some momentum ... yet we were able to come back and grind to battle back," said Dodgers outfielder Shane Victorino. "[It's] something we haven't been able to do."
Early on, a Cardinals offense that has recently struggled to string together hits avoided such issues by simply sending balls out of the park. Yadier Molina and Carpenter sent solo shots out in the second. Holliday's two-run blast in the third put St. Louis up, 4-1.
Capuano was out before the end of the fifth.
By then, though, the Dodgers had already climbed back to within one. After issuing a two-out walk, Kelly served up a two-run homer to Ethier in the bottom of the third.
"I gave him a cookie, 3-0," Kelly said. "Falling behind the best hitter in their lineup came back and bit me in the butt."
Though Kelly was clearly battling his command, he worked around infield hits in the fourth and fifth to preserve the 4-3 lead. His pitch count sat at 67 when the night ended for Kelly, who exited in line for his sixth win.
"I was just trying to make too many adjustments, I think," Kelly said. "I was just a hair away from getting a ton of innings in there. I felt good. I was just a click away."
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.