Why the Cardinals can challenge the Dodgers as the NL's best

ST. LOUIS -- If there is a theme in the early going of the National League race, it's that in today's reliever-driven baseball world, the soft underbelly of a club's bullpen can quickly become the only part of a team's roster that matters.

This assumes, of course, that a team's starting rotation, defense and hitting are all functioning in a contender-appropriate fashion. But even if that team has a quality relief ace, it may not matter if the inherent flakiness of relief pitching manifests itself.

This is a thought that I've had all week as I've watched the St. Louis Cardinals turn around their early season against the high-flying Los Angeles Dodgers. St. Louis polished off a four-game sweep with an 11-7 win on Thursday. The Cardinals' relief work played a big part in the series.

"That was a huge part of our series," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. "The bullpen, when you talk about team, every single guy out there contributed."

Los Angeles entered the series 8-2, with a scoring average just shy of eight runs per game. The Dodgers had homered in all 10 of their games before the St. Louis series.

That all changed after the first inning of the first game of the four-game set. The Dodgers put up two runs in that inning and gave every indication that the offensive onslaught that carried them at home and through Colorado would continue. Instead, it ran smack into a red brick wall. L.A. managed just one run over its next 21 innings.