ST. LOUIS - The Cardinals were done when Matt Holliday dropped that fly ball in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers made it official Saturday night at Busch Stadium when St. Louis went out meekly against Vicente Padilla, losing, 5-1, in a game that was not competitive after the first inning.

The Dodgers swept the NLDS for the second consecutive year and will open the NLCS Thursday and Friday at home against the Phillies or Rockies.

How good was Padilla, the ex-Phillie who was released by Texas in August? This good: He threw 97 pitches over seven shutout innings, 69 strikes and 28 balls. After getting out of a bases-loaded situation in the first, he never allowed the Cardinals any life.

The series may have ended just in time for St. Louis. The Cards scored three runs in Game 1, two in Game 2 and one in Game 3. They were just 4-for-30 with runners in scoring position.

"Vicente Padilla, it looked like he was feeling his way in that first inning, but after that he was nails," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He was great."

These Dodgers are a year older and a year better than the team the Phillies beat, 4-1, in the 2008 NLCS. This year, they will have the homefield advantage after finishing with the best record in the National League.

The Dodgers never trailed in Games 1 and 3. They led for just a moment in Game 2, but it was the right moment, after Holliday dropped what would have been the final out. This is a team that is better on the field than on paper. Sweeping the Cardinals was not something many would have expected.

"As much as you like to see what the statistics tell you you should do, you really can't make up for the emotion that goes on in these guys and what they will themselves to do," Torre said.

The message has been simple from the start.

"First meeting of the year, spring training, Joe sits down, the first words out of his mouth are, 'Our goal is to win the World Series from this day forward moving on,' " Dodgers rightfielder Andre Ethier said. "We put all these games in the season, 162 behind us, we put these three behind us, and we're that much closer to achieving that goal.''

Ethier (6-for-12) and leadoff man Rafael Furcal (6-for-12) were the hitting stars of the series. More ominously, Manny Ramirez, slumbering for weeks, was 3-for-5 with two RBI in the clincher.

"They learned a lot last year, and they really care for each other, which I think is necessary on a team that gets this far," Torre said.

These Dodgers got this far a year ago and no farther. Now, they wait to see which team they will play for a chance to get closer to that spring-training goal.