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Thursday, September 29, 2011

RED HOT CARDINALS WIN NL WILD CARD: Cards Improbable comeback complete


Cards win NL wild card

September 28, 2011

HOUSTON • Thirty-five days before, they had gathered inside a muted home clubhouse at Busch Stadium to pick one another up from a three-game sweep that had tattered their season and driven many outside the walls to question their credibility, even their fortitude.

The message was simple: Even if others had written off their season, the larger disappointment would occur if they as players followed.

Wednesday night before 24,358 at Minute Maid Park, the Cardinals offered final testimony to that Aug. 24 gathering by disposing of the 106-loss Houston Astros in matter-of-fact fashion, 8-0. An hour later, the Cardinals were in the playoffs as the NL wild-card team when Atlanta lost to Philadelphia in 13 innings.

The Cardinals (90-72) immediately removed all suspense by taking a 3-0 lead before making their first out and strong-arming a 5-0 edge before ace Chris Carpenter (11-9) threw his first pitch. The rest was details as Carpenter threw a seamless 106-pitch complete game that paused for only one walk.

After opening the game with five consecutive hits, the Cardinals reached Astros starter Brett Myers (7-14) for 10 hits before the home club reached Carpenter for its second. After rallying from a five-run deficit to win Tuesday, the Cardinals constructed their most prolific first inning of the season en route to their 18th September victory.

They won with their pitching coach, Dave Duncan, in attendance for the first time since Aug. 19. A team that slouched from the field five weeks before embraced each other as it exited Wednesday. Carpenter paused long enough to embrace manager Tony La Russa, whose message he helped relay during that August meeting.

The Cardinals last led their division July 25 and found themselves trailing the Braves by 10½ games for the wild card after being outscored by the Los Angeles Dodgers 24-7 during what appeared to be a ruinous Aug. 22-24 series.

Coincidence or not, the Cardinals followed up their clubhouse meeting with a 23-9 rush in which they won nine of 10 series, including three-game sweeps of the Braves and NL champion Milwaukee Brewers.

Spending five weeks on the edge gave way to Wednesday's quickie beatdown.

During a 10-hitter rally, the Cardinals produced five hits in Myers' first 22 pitches. Five players contributed a first-inning RBI, beginning with first baseman Albert Pujols and ending with shortstop Nick Punto, fresh off Tuesday's four-hit game.

Carpenter, who opened the season 1-7, closed with a 10-2 run beginning June 23. He offered a vintage performance against an overmatched lineup that managed nothing more than a lone single in the fourth and sixth innings. The Astros pushed only one runner to second base and never reached third. Carpenter reached the eighth inning in 92 pitches.

Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Pujols, Lance Berkman and David Freese created a staccato first-inning attack that left Myers clearly irritated and brought manager Brad Mills to the mound.

Carpenter entered the start with 2281/3 innings and left with his fifth straight outing of at least seven innings. Carpenter allowed five runs combined in that span.

Wednesday night served as final validation to the late July trades that acquired starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, shortstop Rafael Furcal and outfielder Corey Patterson. A team that labored for traction after its 37-25 start found itself at only 67-63 following the Dodgers fiasco. The Cardinals have since lost consecutive games only twice and not endured a three-game losing streak.

The Cardinals bumped their lead to 6-0 with an unearned run in the third inning and added on in the fifth when Freese moved around on consecutive ground balls after leading off with a double.

Craig, who generated four RBIs after entering Tuesday's game in the fourth inning, smacked his second home run in as many nights and 11th of the season to account for the final margin.

While the offense generated double-digit hits, Carpenter amassed a season-most 11 strikeouts his first three times through the Astros order. He worked as a steamroller, taking the ball and quickly feeding it back to catcher Yadier Molina against a lineup barely there. Carpenter allowed himself a brief indulgence during the seventh inning when, hearing a buzz from the healthy contingent of Cardinals fans behind the third-base dugout, he dropped the ball and stole a glance at the left-field scoreboard that read: PHI 3, ATL 3.

Carpenter entered the ninth inning with 98 pitches but the Astros seemed glad to play along with a limp ninth that allowed Carpenter to work his fourth complete game and second shutout of the season.

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