After dropping the first two of a three game home stand against the NL Central leading Milwaukee Brewers, the St.Louis Cardinals faced somewhat of a gut check as they tried to avoid a sweep. Not that a sweep would have ended the season, but it would have made their path to the playoffs just a bit more treacherous.
Adding to the drama of this important series were a pair of pre-made excuses to lay down and surrender. And they are oh so familiar – the injury bug. Rookie sensation Lance Lynn was the first to drop with the now dreaded diagnosis of an oblique injury. We still don’t know whether it was a strain (2-3 weeks) or tear (4-6 weeks), but it was quite a blow to a bullpen that recently had been very very good.
Matt Holliday was the next to fall, injuring his back while lifting weights. There are a number of players that you might ask to man up in this situation, but that is Matt Holliday’s modus operendi, so if he is out of the lineup, he really can’t go. Let’s hope he gets back soon.
All of this times into play for the Brewers series finale. Chris Carpenter would have to be dominating because the Cardinals offense looked quite beatable, especially to a good Brewers pitcher like Yovani Gallardo. With the lackluster performance still fresh in the minds of Cardinals fans everywhere, this game could be a litmus test for the remainder of the season.
If you could have written the script for this game, what actually took place would have been the exact opposite of anything you could have imagined. A leadoff single by Corey Hart would lead to the first Brewers run when Matt Kotsay ripped a one out double into the left field corner. Prince Fielder would make the score 2-0 with a single.
Casey McGehee, a notorious Cardinals killer,hits into the first of our key plays of the game. He grounds out to David Freese and third base. Freese makes a sharp throw to Ryan Theriot at second, who makes the turn and throws out McGehee for the inning ending double play. Prior to that play, Busch Stadium sounded more like a giant library than a live sporting event.
Hot on the heels of that inning ending defensive play, Rafael Furcal hits his second home run as a member of the Cardinals. He turns on a Gallardo inside pitch and rips it deep into the right field seats, nearly hitting former Cardinals slugger, Jack Clark. Albert Pujols ties the game with his 28th home run of the season. That solo shot ties teammate Lance Berkman for the National League lead at 28. Not bad for one guy who was supposed to be done, and another having a rare off season.
As exciting as those two home runs were, it is exactly that type of run scoring that has put the Cardinals 5 games behind the Brewers in the standings. Albert Pujols has at 117 total hits, which mean that when he comes up to the plate, the Cardinals are three times more likely to score by something other than a home run. More on this later.
The Cardinals would take the lead for good in the third inning. Rafael Furcal would start things off by grounding out to Felipe Lopez, but Lopez boots the ball, allowing the speedy Furcal to reach base safely. Jon Jay then grounds sharply into what looks like a tailor-made double play, but Lopez took just a bit too long to get to second base, making his turn throw to first base too late to catch Jon Jay. Jay was hustling down the first base line, which was the key to this play.
Albert Pujols would then single, allowing Jon Jay to take third on the play. Again, the hustle by the young Cardinals outfielder was a big factor. Lance Berkman would then single, scoring Jay easily from third. David Freese would end the inning by grounding into a double play, but the damage had already been done. The Cardinals had a 3-2 lead. The game was far from over, but the hometown crowd was back in the game.
Chris Carpenter had been doing his best Harry Houdini impression in just about every inning. He would would get into trouble, and somehow managed to deliver the key pitch to end the inning. His greatest escape would come in the fifth inning, the last time he would struggle before turning the game over to the bullpen.
The inning would start with a Corey Hart strikeout. Nyjer Morgan would follow that with a single. In an unusual play, Mark Kotsay would single to left field, but Morgan stopped at second base.
This game had suddenly become the mirror image of the previous one. It was the Brewers that were walking the bases, station to station, and committing defensive errors. The Cardinals were the ones running from first to third, and the middle infield was bailing out a struggling Chris Carpenter, inning after inning.
Facing Prince Fielder with an opportunity to break the game wide open, Carpenter strikes out the Brewers slugger for the second out of the inning. A wild pitch that really seemed to catch Yadier Molina napping put runners at second and third, but Carpenter toughens and gets McGehee to hit a weak liner to short.
From this point on, Chris Carpenter would dominate the Brewers in a way we hadn’t seen in a long time. They would get the occasional bloop hit, but failed to put together anything remotely looking like a rally.
The Turning Point
As it so often happens, the turning point in the game came immediately following Chris Carpenter’s escape from trouble. And it would come in the most unexpected form.
The inning did not start off all that promising. Chris Carpenter would start things off by striking out. Rafael Furcal would follow suit with a groundout of his own. Jon Jay would then single, setting up the play that would insure the Cardinals victory.
In a rare departure from the script, Jon Jay steals second base. While Albert Pujols was at the plate. This is something that is long overdue. If Jay is thrown out, Albert leads off the next inning. But he wasn’t. And there are so many more ways to score from second base than first. Remember those 117 hits from Pujols, 89 of which stay in the ball park ? One of them would come next, allowing Jay to score from second. Stl 4, Mil 2.
Lance Berkman hits a rocket towards Felipe Lopez, and Lopez isn’t able to make the play. It was ruled a hit, but could have easily been Lopez’s second error on the night. The ball trickled away far enough for Pujols to take third, which becomes huge when Gallardo throws a pitch to the backstop. The score is now 5-2, and whatever wind Milwaukee had in their sails just dissipated. And this all started with 2 outs, a piece of aggressive base running, and a group of singles, albeit one somewhat assisted by Felipe Lopez.
These last two runs were manufactured, and did not require any player to get an extra base hit – a much higher probability of success than waiting on the long ball. If the Cardinals are to have a realistic chance at catching the Brewers, they will have to do a lot more of this, and less standing around waiting for someone to hit the big fly.
After getting those two strikeouts and weak liner in the fifth, Chris Carpenter kept the Brewers to a spot hit here and there. He would turn things over to Fernando Salas in the ninth, and finally, a part of the game went according to the script. Salas got two quick strikeouts and a weak grounder for one of the most uneventful saves of his young pitching career.
There was a lot to like in this game. Albert Pujols was a hitting machine, going 4-4 with a home run. Lance Berkman contributed a key hit in the pivotal fifth inning. In fact, the top four in the Cardinals batting order would get 8 of the 9 hits on the evening. The lone hit from the bottom of the order came from Yadier Molina, extending his hitting streak to 14 games.
On the pitching side, Chris Carpenter struggled early, but was able to do what you expect your ace to do – stay in the game, work through the struggles, put a nail or two in the opponents rallies, and give your team a chance to win. He did all of that, and more. Going 8 innings, he saved a depleted bullpen once again.
Even the Cardinals middle infield were very good. They would turn a total of four double plays in situations where they previously failed to do so, leading to some long long innings.
With all of this in mind, the key moment in the game came when Jon Jay stole second base. That’s when the Brewers would turn off the proverbial light and go to bed. From that point in the game, it was all Cardinals. Two days earlier, the Brewers were the ones making the key plays. 48 hours can make quite a difference.
It remains to be seen if this type of play will continue, or if we see a return to co-ed softball.