ST. LOUIS — In a potential playoff preview Monday night at Busch Stadium, the surging St. Louis Cardinals showed people that they can beat the good teams too.
The Cardinals entered Monday’s series opener against the NL West leading San Francisco Giants with just a 10-21 mark in their last 31 games against teams with a winning record. And with All-Star Matt Cain on the mound for the Giants, things figured to be tough.
But the Cardinals continued their recent hot streak, breaking open a tie game with three huge runs in the bottom of the sixth inning en route to a key 8-2 win in the first of four games at Busch Stadium.
Pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter delivered the big blow, a two-out, two-run single to put the Cardinals up 5-2 and knock Cain from the game.
“It’s good to get back on track and hopefully we can keep this going,” said Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook, who allowed two runs in six innings. “Carp came in and got a huge hit and we added on after that. It was good to see, especially in the first game against a tough opponent.
“I think it’s us playing the way we are capable of playing, putting together good starts, swinging the bat, the bullpen coming in and doing their job and just playing good team baseball. It’s what we feel like we are capable of doing.”
The Cardinals are 13-4 in their last 17 games but just four of those wins have come against teams with winning records. They beat up on the lowly Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers while also taking three of four from playoff contender Los Angeles.
But with the Giants and Cardinals entering Monday’s game with identical 59-49 records, the home teams recent stretch of strong play was put to the test. And they responded, improving to 10-1 at home since the All-Star break while handing Cain just his fifth loss of the season.
Cain held the National League’s best offense in check until the sixth. But as many teams have found out, the defending champs have a hard time staying quiet for nine innings. A sacrifice fly from David Freese put the Cardinals up 3-2 before singles by Yadier Molina and Jon Jay and a walk by Rafael Furcal loaded the bases with two outs.
Carpenter had three hits in three previous at-bats vs. Cain, making it an easy call for Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to pinch-hit him for a cruising Westbrook who had thrown just 79 pitches. And Carpenter made it 4-for-4 off Cain, lining a single to left to score a pair and extend the lead to 5-2.
“You want to get on a roll late in a season like we are right now,” Carpenter said. “To be playing like we are is great. Hopefully we can keep it going. We knew we had a great club.
“We’ve had some tough injuries and I think we’ve weathered it pretty well. We’re right where we need to be from health standpoint and way we’re playing the game right now. I think if we can keep this going we’ll be happy with where we finish.”
In a battle of the last two World Series Champions, it was the Cardinals who provided a carbon copy of several other wins they’ve had in recent games. The starting pitching delivered a quality start, the bullpen had three scoreless innings and the offense erupted for eight runs.
Said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, “That’s a good hitting ballclub. They’re not at the top for no reason. They have some good hitters and they battled Matt well.”
All three facets of the game have started to come together for the Cardinals, and the wins have begun to come as well. The Cardinals picked up a game on the division leading Cincinnati Reds for the second straight day, moving to within six games with 53 left to play. They trail the Pirates by 2.5 games for the second Wild Card spot.
The Giants and Dodgers are tied for the N.L. West lead at 59-50 and both are just 3.5 games back of a Wild Card spot. That puts even more importance on this week’s series in St. Louis with the Cardinals and Giants potentially setting up to fight it out down the stretch for a playoff spot.
“I think every series is key from here on out,” said Giants catcher Buster Posey, who homered to briefly tie the game in the sixth. “I think both us and the Cardinals are in a good position and each game is key.”
But it was the Cardinals who took a nice first step Monday night, doing it against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“We’ve got some ground to make up but if we keep doing what were doing we’re going to be all right,” Westbrook said. “We’ve been playing pretty consistently for the last couple of weeks but from here on out every game is our most important game.
“A win is a win, especially at this point in the year. This definitely shows when you go out and beat a guy like that, what we’re capable and we just have to do it every day.”
The Cardinals also improved to 4-1 in their past five games against winning teams, a stat they hope to continue in the near future. They have series coming up against contenders including Arizona, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Washington.
Asked about their struggles against teams with winning records in the past, Matheny said, “Only you guys know that. You guys are the ones paying attention to that. We try to focus on the things we can control and that’s the game. The stats are what the stats are, you can’t deny that, but we don’t spent too much time looking at it.”
The Cardinals have spent plenty of time winning of late. And they can only hope it continues as they look to get back in the postseason for a second straight year.