Holliday giving Cardinals plenty to celebrate

Matt Holliday did more than anyone to make sure the Cardinals didn't lose this weekend series: He clubbed a 432-foot homer in the fourth inning for the Cardinals' first run, doubled in a run in the fifth and drove in the winning runs with a two-run single in the eighth that broke a 6-6 tie.

Matt Holliday celebrates with first-base coach Chris Maloney after driving in the winning runs with a two-run single in the eighth that broke a 6-6 tie.

Chris Lee / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS -- A day that could not have started out much worse for the Cardinals could not have ended up much better.

After falling behind, 5-0, in the second inning, the Cardinals rallied for a 9-6 victory that allowed them to split a four-game series after dropping the first two against the last-place Cubs. Just as important, with September looming, the Cardinals gained a share of first place in the NL Central when the Brewers lost their fifth straight game.

"We needed this win," Matt Holliday said. "We couldn't afford to lose three out of four."

Holliday did more than anyone to make sure they didn't. He clubbed a 432-foot homer in the fourth inning for the Cardinals' first run, doubled in a run in the fifth and drove in the winning runs with a two-run single in the eighth that broke a 6-6 tie.

His winning hit came with two outs and two strikes against Carlos Villanueva, who had just come up and in on Holliday with a 90-mph fastball. On the next pitch, Holliday exacted sweet revenge by walloping a line drive that hit Villanueva in the left leg and ricocheted into left field. In his previous at-bat, Holliday had been hit in the left elbow by Pedro Strop.

Although Holliday clearly wasn't happy about being plunked for the 15th time this season, he shrugged it off afterward. Not one to usually show much emotion, he didn't shrug off his winning hit. After rounding first base, he traded a hearty hand slap with first-base coach Chris Maloney.

Manager Mike Matheny was just as fired up when asked about Holliday's big day that followed his two-homer effort from Saturday night. Matheny did not mind pointing out how he has spent much of the season answering questions about Holliday's substandard numbers: His .267 batting average and .432 slugging percentage are well below his career .307 and .522, respectively. 

"I love when guys do what they've always done when people seem to forget," Matheny said. "Year after year, he's an elite player and he continues to figure out ways to get it done no matter what. Big day. We needed that again from him and he's leading us."

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He's doing so, despite playing with a sore left knee as well as the aches and pains that come with a long season.

"I tell you what, he leads by going back there all the time and playing the way that he plays," Matheny said. "Like we've said, every one of those guys is banged up. But it is part of the satisfaction of pushing through that stuff for your team, and Matt's been a warrior in that department."

Holliday had company in the hero department, including an unlikely one in -- get ready for this -- Pete Kozma. That's right. Last year's starting shortstop, who had not batted in the majors since April 14, led off the eighth by doubling to the gap in left-center and scoring the go-ahead run on Holliday's double.

Kozma did not learn until Saturday evening when he was in New Orleans with Class AAA Memphis that he was being called up. "I got the word at about 5:45 when I was dressed and just getting ready to go out on the field," said Kozma, who took an early-morning flight and arrived at Busch Stadium shortly before first pitch.

He entered the game only because second baseman Kolten Wong had to exit in the top of the eighth after banging his head on the right-field turf while trying to fight the sun and catch a pop fly that landed for a single. Initial tests cleared Wong of a concussion, though he will be checked again Monday.

Kozma took a first-pitch fastball for a strike and then drove a hanging curve to the gap in left-center to start the winning rally.

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"It's not a surprise to us," Matheny said. "How many big hits have we seen this guy have? He doesn't scare in big situations."

Matheny then referenced Kozma's biggest hit as a Cardinal, his two-run, ninth-inning, game-deciding single that completed a comeback from a 6-0 deficit in Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series.

"He doesn't get too high, too low," Matheny said. "We've seen a postgame interview against Washington when he looked like just another day at the office. That lends itself to his success. He doesn't try to do more than he can."

Spending a season in the minors after starting in the World Series did not seem to change Kozma's low-key ways.

"It was an adjustment," he admitted. "After a week or two, it was right back to it. It was fine."

As he pointed out, he's here for the stretch. And though his first day back didn't begin so well, it sure ended on a great note.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.

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