Chris Carpenter needed a pick-me-up in the worst way. A bullpen that just sat back and watched the last time the St. Louis Cardinals ace pitched was ready for extended duty.
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Albert Pujols hit an RBI double off Yovani Gallardo during a four-run first inning and four St. Louis relievers combined for four perfect innings Wednesday night for a 4-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers and a 2-1 edge in the National League Championship Series.
Suddenly, the wild-card Cardinals are front-runners. And against the team that put them away early en route to the NL Central title.
”I think our ballclub, no matter leading or behind, it doesn’t really matter to be honest with you,” Carpenter said. ”We have battled for the last two months or however long it’s been.
”We have nothing to lose.”
The Brewers have lost eight in a row on the road in the postseason, a stretch that extends to Game 1 of the 1982 World Series in St. Louis on a shutout by Mike Caldwell. It’s the longest current streak in the majors.
”I think regardless of whether we’re winning or losing the series, we recognize what’s at stake,” Brewers star Ryan Braun said. ”We’re going to prepare ourselves just like we’ve been doing and expect to win tomorrow and hopefully get off to a good start.”
In a matchup of star pitchers, neither starter made it past the fifth inning. Gallardo tied an NLCS record with three wild pitches, while the one-run lead Carpenter handed over to the relievers was just enough to put the Cardinals ahead in the best-of-seven series.
It was a game played in a steady drizzle but with no squirrel sightings — at least not on the field. In the previous playoff game at Busch Stadium, a squirrel scampered across home plate while the Cardinals were hitting.
The careening critter quickly became a favorite in St. Louis as the Rally Squirrel. The Cardinals’ marketing department capitalized, too, giving away 40,000 rally towels with a squirrel theme, telling fans to ”Go Nuts” on the video board and dressing up someone in a squirrel costume to entertain the fans between innings.
There was at least one squirrel sighting in the stands. One rodent got stuck underneath a vendor’s station just outside the press box before the game, leaping to safety and up the steps to the upper deck after a worker opened a side compartment.
Kyle Lohse, pitching on 12 days’ rest, starts Game 4 on Thursday for the wild-card Cardinals against Randy Wolf.
”You never know how it’s going to work out,” Carpenter said. ”That’s what’s so fun about this game and that’s what’s so fun about pitching. Our guys did a fabulous job.”
Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Motte shut down the Brewers to close out the victory. Motte, who had two saves lasting more than inning in September and another in the first round of the playoffs against Philadelphia, got four outs for this save and fanned pinch hitter Casey McGehee to end it.
”We’ve won games in several ways,” Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman said. ”Tonight’s was the bullpen’s night to shine.”
Carpenter won his seventh postseason game to tie Bob Gibson’s franchise record, but with none of the brilliance of his three-hit shutout over Roy Halladay and the favored Phillies in the deciding game of the division series. He lasted only five innings, with nearly half of his 89 pitches for balls.
The starters’ ineffectiveness was surprising considering their track records.
Carpenter has been clutch throughout his career in the postseason, going 7-2 with a 3.14 ERA in 12 games. Gallardo allowed only two runs in 21 innings, a minuscule 0.86 ERA, before Game 3.
The Cardinals have scored in the first inning in their last five games, and batted around against Gallardo in the first. Pujols delivered an RBI double after starring in a Game 2 win with a home run and three doubles, and then singled in the second to give him six hits in a stretch of seven at-bats.
St. Louis had its chances to break away later, but hit into three double plays and stranded nine runners. The Cardinals broke their own National League record for double plays this season.
Mark Kotsay started ahead of slumping Nyjer Morgan and homered for the Brewers. Yuniesky Betancourt had two singles and an RBI and Gallardo, a .221 hitter with a homer and four RBIs, had a sacrifice fly in the second.
Jon Jay and David Freese added RBI doubles in the first for St. Louis, which was 3 for 4 with runners in scoring position to start the game but 0 for 7 the rest of the way.
Gallardo, who’s 1-7 with a 5.66 career mark against the Cardinals, trailed 2-0 after his first 12 pitches and barely made it out of the first trailing 4-0. The right-hander walked three, one of them intentional, and the Brewers had Chris Narveson up in the bullpen before Yadier Molina grounded into a double play, scoring the fourth run, for his first outs.
Gallardo trudged to the dugout after his 33-pitch ordeal. He was looking forward to another chance at St. Louis.
”Yeah, I mean, of course,” Gallardo said. ”I look forward to it. I can’t wait and hopefully we’ll get another shot at it.”
Luckily for the Brewers, Carpenter didn’t have his ”A” game, either. By the third, the lead was down to one run.
The Cardinals’ ace walked none in his brilliant three-hit shutout in Game 5 of the NLDS, but had a walk and a hit batsman in the Brewers’ first three plate appearances.
Carpenter escaped with help from Kotsay, who strayed too far off second on Prince Fielder’s lineout to center and was doubled off the bag by Jay’s strong throw to end the inning. But Carpenter didn’t look comfortable in the second or third, either.
The Brewers opened the second with three straight singles with Betancourt getting the RBI. Gallardo, who batted .221 with a homer and four RBIs this season, added a sacrifice fly that cut the deficit to 4-2.
Kotsay got a spot start, partly because he’s 4 for 11 against Carpenter. Kotsay hit his second career postseason homer leading off the third. Morgan flied out to start the seventh as a pinch hitter and was roundly booed throughout the at-bat.
Kotsay just missed a diving catch on Jay’s bloop double to left-center in the first, a play manager Ron Roenicke said Carlos Gomez would have made. But Roenicke said Gomez was never a consideration for the lineup.
NOTES: Hall of Famer Stan Musial made a pregame appearance at home plate via golf cart, accompanied to music from ”The Natural,” and was flanked by fellow Cardinals Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Red Schoendienst. … Two stars from the Cardinals’ 2006 World Series title team collaborated on the first pitch. Jeff Suppan, the NLCS MVP that year, threw to injured pitcher Adam Wainwright, who got the last out of the ’06 NLCS when he froze the Mets’ Carlos Beltran for a called third strike. Suppan played his last seven seasons with the Cardinals and Brewers. … Pujols has 16 postseason walks, moving past Jim Edmonds for the franchise record. … Betancourt singled his first two trips and had been on a 10-for-18 run before a flyout in the sixth. … Braun has hit in seven of eight postseason games this season, going 14 for 29 (.483) with two homers and eight RBIs.