For all those who doubted the Cardinals in 2007 to even win the central, let alone compete in defending their World Series title, here’s a game for you. Being a Cardinal always has meant and always will mean playing tough, playing hard (a hard nine, LaRussa always asks from his team), playing where asked, gutting it out and doing whatever it takes to win. In fact, to know what it means to be a Cardinal, look no further than the 3rd base line, where you see Jose Oquendo coaching every game—a man who has played all 9 positions during his career (yes, even pitcher)—the ultimate utility man.
There will be games this season when Albert thrills us with a walkoff homer or Rolen hits several doubles to the gap to give the Cardinals a big lead. There will be games when Carpenter (fingers crossed) will flirt with a no-no or every guy plays his role, with Eckstein setting the table, Duncan moving him up and the big boys driving in the runs.
But, every once in awhile, you will have a game like this. A game where many unlikely and even surprising or unexpected pieces fit together to form a Cardinal win. And this was the best kind. A come from behind win in extras. Now that’s great baseball.
So who all contributed to this great game? Basically, any player that doesn’t have the guarantee of playing every day. Let’s start with the most unlikely hero of them all…..Randy Keisler. If Carpenter hadn’t been hurt and placed on the DL, Keisler would have gone about his normal day, pitched in Memphis and probably never thought twice about what it might be like to face the Pittsburgh Pirates on a bitter cold Tuesday night. Instead, Carpenter did get hurt and was placed on the DL, so Keisler was called up to take his place. He had some mighty big shoes to fill, but let’s just say he passed with flying colors.
I thought maybe he’d go four innings and would have considered a succes if he had gone five. Instead, Keisler one-upped my hopes, pitching 6 strong innings and only giving up 5 hits, walking 1 and striking out 3. He ended up giving 2 earned runs, but also worked himself out of a couple of jams.
The Cadinals kept putting the pressure on Pittsburgh, getting the leadoff guy on, but they could not seem to push across a run if they tried. This was not like the Pirates the previous night who couldn’t even get a runner to third. The Cardinals were hitting the ball hard, but just not having the dice roll their way. Spiezio smacked a ball hard his first time up, but it was right to the Buc’s LF, Jason Bay. Then Edmonds battled with reliief pitcher Matt Caps, including a couple of sharply hit foul balls, only to smack a line drive straight at 1B Adam LaRoche, in which LaRoche was able to easily step on the bag and double of Aaron Miles. But eventually, 11 hits and three walks later, the Redbirds were able to put enough pressure on the Pirates to make something happen for real.
The Cardinals were running out of time in the top of hte 9th, when Eckstein came up with a single to get the rally going. Duncan was walked to bring up Pujols. I’m sure visions of 3 run homer were going through the minds of every Cardinal fan watching the game, but the Pirates were able to contain him to the outfield. He hit a deep fly that was able to advance Eck and Duncan up a base. To me, this was huge. If Pujols strikes out or hits a shallow pop fly…..anything that doesn’t advance the runners, you are still very much in danger of the next guy hitting into an inning ending double play. Pujols had the best kind of out there is……a productive one.
Enter surprising hero #2: Scott Spiezio
I won’t call Spiezio an "unlikely" hero, because any Cardinal fan who watched Spiezio during last year and especially in October know that Spiezio is definitely our "Mr. Clutch." But it is surprising because Spiezio (for reasons unknown) doensn’t always get much playing time. Lately, LaRussa has had a justifiable excuse to keep Scott out of the lineup. He was having some back problems followed up by a nasty case of food poisioning. He was supposed to be on the bench as a "limited option." But once Scott Rolen was scratched late due to flare up of back trouble of his own, Spiezio became pretty much the only option. (Do we HAVE backup 3B? Anybody know? Schumaker, Miles…..how are your reflexes?)
Luckily for the Cardinals, they did not have to start exploring new options at the hot corner, but instead asked Spiezio to play third (he’s only played outfield so far this year) and to do so knowing he wasn’t 100%. But Spiezio gutted out 12 innings of play and to watch it, you wouldn’t know the difference. After Pujols advance the runners with his long fly out, Spiezio hit one to the gap to bring both Eckstein and Duncan around. And just like that, Salomon Torres blew his first save this season for the Bucs. Beautiful.
But the work wasn’t done yet.
The Cards and Pirates would battle for two more innings, the Cardinal relievers absolutely dealing. It was especially nice to see Springer get a shutout inning after having been hammered in a previous game this season. Josh Hancock, Randy Flores and Brad Thompson also contributed to the relief apperances. Thompson had me scared at one point when the Pirates had runners on 1st and 2nd with no outs due to an error by Eckstein and then a HBP. Then, the following inning they put 2 runners on again with 1 out. But Thompson escaped unscathed and ended up with the win to boot. At one point, he was aided by some stellar and smart Cardinal defense. When the Pirates had runners on with no outs, Spiezio (the guy who’s supposed to be sick….remember him?) and Pujols were charging all the way in this "ideal" bunt situation. Indeed, it was a bunt and Spiezio reached it first, wheeling around and firing a strike at Eckstein, who was covering 3rd.
Side note: I have to say I was very iimpressed with the Cardinal defense this series. Yes, Eckstein had that one error, but it was his first of the year and very forgivable on the play. Overall, it was much better than it has been though. In the first week of games, they had errors by nearly every outfielder on the squad and just not very good overall defense from a club that’s usually known for their great hands. (With the one exception being the Molina DP the other day.)
But, Wilson made a nice running grab yesterday, Taguchi got on his horse to make a great snatch at the track, there has been double plays and of course the Spiezio play off the bunt. Also, I thought that Eckstein turned a very nice DP to end the game. I thought Izzy’s throw to him on the bag was rather high, but he brought it down and turned two to end the game.
Ok, back to the game. Top of the 12th. Three new unlikely heroes emerge. This time backup catcher Gary Bennett, in to give Molina a rest, gets things going with a leadoff single. Then Aaron Miiles, resting normal 2nd baseman Adam Kennedy moves him over with a double of his own. Last but not least, Skip Shumaker pinch hitting in last night’s makeshift outfield, scored Bennett with a sac fly. I was shocked to see Bennett go as the ball wasn’t hit very deep and Bennett isn’t exactly speedy. But, he did the next best thing. He went in HARD and trouble continued for the Pirates catcher (who has been getting based swiped left and right on him) who dropped the ball on the play. He picked it up quick and tried to make it look like he applied the tag, but major props to homeplate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt who was right in the play and saw the dropped the ball.
All in all, Spiezio, Miles, Schumaker and Bennett went 9-17 on the night, banged in all 3 Cardinal runs and scored one of them. Add to that, the Cardinal relief corp combining to 2 hit the Bucs in the last 6 innings of this 12 inning game. And of course the aforementioned performance of previous Memphis Redbird, Randy Keisler. It wasn’t the game I would have predicted, but I sure enjoyed watching it all the same.
Alright, game’s about ready to start, so I’m going to post this and if I have time, I’ll quickly preview the last game of this Pittsburgh series.
Loving the Cardinal bench,