Seventh inning strikeouts proved critical for CardsPosted: Saturday October 12, 2002 11:17 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- The St. Louis Cardinals love to talk about having their proverbial backs against the proverbial wall. They've played that way all year long, they say. They actually play better that way.
Saturday on a sunny afternoon at Pac Bell Park, the Cardinals found themselves up against it again, blindfolded, a cigarette in their lips, their whole season flashing before their eyes. The hometown Giants were threatening to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series. Nobody comes out of a 3-0 hole.
"It's almost like the last game of the World Series," Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said. "That's how we have to look at it. That's how we have to play."
The Cardinals did what they needed to do Saturday and stepped away from the wall a bit, beating the Giants and notching their first win in the series, 5-4.
Just about any one-run game can turn on a handful of plays. This one had a couple in the seventh inning that not only saved the game for St. Louis, but maybe the Cardinals' season as well.
Leading 5-4 off an Eli Marrero home run in the sixth inning, the Cardinals took the field for the Giants' half of the seventh with reliever Dave Veres on the mound and the heart of the Giants' lineup coming up. Rich Aurilia, who already had pounded four home runs this postseason, doubled off the center field wall on a 2-0 pitch. The Cardinals were immediately in trouble.
That brought up second baseman Jeff Kent, who had two hits on the afternoon. On deck was Barry Bonds, whose three-run homer earlier had tied the score at 4-4.
It was a touchy situation. If Veres walked Kent, or let him single, he would be forced to pitch to Bonds -- something no pitcher wants to do in that situation. So Veres' role was clear: Get Kent. Somehow.
Don't walk him. Don't let him get a hit. Simple as that.
Veres guessed that Kent actually might try to bunt Aurilia over to third, in which case the Cards would have walked Bonds anyway. But Veres got Kent to 1-1 and it became apparent that Kent was swinging away. Kent swung through a 1-2 pitch and Veres missed low with the next pitch.
On the fifth pitch, the veteran righty threw Kent a splitter that had a huge break and Kent struck out.
So …runner at second with one out and Bonds up. Easy call. Walk Bonds. So they did.
From there, things might have gotten easier, but that's not the way things go for the Cardinals. Not this year. Benito Santiago hit a dribbler past the mound that Veres couldn't get to. By the time second baseman Fernando Vina scooped it up, everyone was safe.
"I was just trying to make it a tougher play than it should have been," Veres said with a laugh afterward. "That why they never let me play shortstop."
Luckily for the Cardinals, Giants right fielder Reggie Sanders was up next. Sanders is having an awful postseason. He came up in the seventh, with the bases loaded and one out, on an 0-for-11 skid in the LCS.
Four pitches and a strikeout later, Sanders was 0-for-12.
"Those were big strikeouts," said reliever Steve Kline, who came on for Veres and got Giants first baseman J.T. Snow to ground out for the third out of the inning. "[The Kent strikeout] was probably bigger than the Reggie Sanders strikeout at the time. That just killed their momentum."
After that, the Cardinals practically cruised. Kline and Rick White breezed through the eighth. Jason Isringhausen pitched a practically perfect ninth, striking out Kent and Santiago, while giving up only a pretty much intentional walk to Bonds.
The relievers went four innings and gave up three hits without giving up a run.
"We have a lot of flexibility down there," said St. Louis manager Tony La Russa. "All of our right-handers do a pretty good job against lefties and our lefties do a good job against right-handed hitters."
The Giants won the first two games of this series in St. Louis. The team that has won the first game of the league championship has moved on to win the series every postseason for the past nine years.
It sounded like good news for the Giants, at the time. But what that did was put St. Louis in trouble right from the start.
Which is right where the Cardinals like to be.