ST. LOUIS — When the Texas Rangers learned two months ago that Vicente Padilla would no longer pitch for them, several players exchanged handshakes with General Manager Jon Daniels in the clubhouse. Second baseman Ian Kinsler even reportedly said, "Congrats."
Padilla spurred a different kind of clubhouse celebration Saturday at Busch Stadium.
The castoff with a reputation as a bad teammate was among the most popular Dodgers during the fizzy festivities that ensued after a 5-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League division series.
Padilla held the Cardinals without a run over seven sublime innings to help the Dodgers complete a three-game sweep and advance to the NL Championship Series. The alleged headhunter had suddenly prompted some head scratching.
"It's kind of hard to imagine why they let him go," catcher Russell Martin said of the Rangers, "because of how good he is right now."
Mixing a fastball with occasional sinkers, Padilla worked four one-two-three innings in his first career playoff start. He retired 16 of 17 batters from the second through seventh innings and escaped the only jam he faced when he got Yadier Molina to ground out with the bases loaded to end the first.
"The Cardinals have good hitters," second baseman Ronnie Belliard said, "and he just shut the door."
It was the latest in a series of surreal developments for a pitcher who had a 4.92 earned-run average at the time of his August release. Padilla went 4-0 in seven starts with the Dodgers during the regular season and then, in the biggest start of his 11-year career, turned in his longest outing in nearly three months.
"It's a big deal for me to help this team win and it's a big deal to me to be a part of this," Padilla said through an interpreter.
After Padilla retired Brendan Ryan on a fly ball to end the seventh inning, sending fans from a record crowd streaming toward the exits, Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said he briefly considered sending Padilla back out for the eighth. He relented, allowing George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton to record the final six outs.
The victory held special significance for Padilla because his mother had traveled from Nicaragua to attend the game. The right-hander gave up only four hits and one walk while striking out four.
"At first I was really nervous, I admit it," Padilla said. "But after I got out of the first inning I was able to calm down and get all my pitches over."
The Rangers complained that Padilla was late for meetings or skipped them altogether. He also was known to retreat to the clubhouse during games to check e-mail and surf the Internet.
The Dodgers used different terms to describe Padilla.
"I don't know what happened in Texas, but to me he's a good teammate," said pitcher Randy Wolf, who also played alongside Padilla in Philadelphia. "He's quiet, he works hard, he does his work in between starts, he wants to win, he's competitive. . . . He's been a great pickup."
Third base coach Larry Bowa, who managed Padilla for four years in Philadelphia, said the pitcher understands what it means to pitch on baseball's biggest stage.
"I think he understands the magnitude of every game now," Bowa said. "And let's be honest: He wants a contract for next year. When guys are playing the last year of their contract out, for some reason that notch goes up a little bit higher."