September 10, 2008

Cards fall short on comeback, slip to fourth in NL Central

The Chicago Cubs evened up the series with the St. Louis Cardinals tonight, holding off a ninth inning comeback that featured a double to the right-center field wall by Albert Pujols, then a two-run homer to the same area, only one row up, by Ryan Ludwick, who earned his 100th and 101st RBI of the season.

Ludwick's round-tripper, however, wasn't enough to bring the Cardinals back, Kerry Wood getting the save for the Cubs as the Cards drop a tough one, 4-3.

Pujols helped the Cards score first, in the first inning, when he grounded home Cesar Izturis to give the Cards an early 1-0 lead.

Felix Pie singled home K Fukudome in the top of the next inning, the start of a frame in which the Cubs scored all of their four runs on the night. Alfonso Soriano brought home a couple when he grounded into a fielder's choice to third baseman Felipe Lopez, who threw wildly to Adam Kennedy covering second, allowing Mark DeRosa and Pie to score. Aramis Ramirez then singled home Soriano.

That four-run frame forced Looper to throw about three innings worth of pitches, after which he lasted through the fifth. His pitch count ended up at 106, and from there La Russa went with Randy Flores, Jason Motte, Josh Kinney, Ron Villone, and Kelvin Jimenez, the five relievers allowing no Cubs runs and no hits in four combined innings of work. Looper had given up the four runs, but only one of those was earned.

You could easily count Looper's performance as another excellent outing for a Cards' starter, but with a very rough inning.

So what the game challenge became was Cubs' starter Ted Lilly, who always seems to have the Cardinals' number. Lilly went eight stellar innings, at one point, taking out Yadier Molina at the plate and going back on the mound to throw some more. Molina would play a few more innings and then have to leave the game with what La Russa called a severe bruise in his post-game interview.

Lilly's command of his fast ball, slider, curve, and change kept the Cardinals' batsmen off balance most of the night, until Cubs' manager pulled him for reliever Kerry Wood in the ninth. That's when Pujols and Ludwick worked up a couple of comeback runs.

Unfortunately, falling short in the ninth meant a loss that, combined with a Houston Astros victory tonight, causes the Cards to slip into fourth place in the NL Central.

The Milwaukee Brewers won their game earlier in the day, so the NL Central stacks up with the Cubs in first, Brewers 4.5 games behind them in second, then, the Astros, 8.5 games out, and in fourth, the Cards, now 9.0 games out.

The Wild Card race adds up quite differently, and not as badly as the regular season standings. The Brewers still lead the NL WC. The Astros enjoy a real boost from their victory tonight, moving up to second in the WC, tied with the Phillies, both 4.0 games behind the Brewers. The Cards aren't in a horrible spot, only 4.5 games behind in the WC.

Tomorrow night features the rubber match, which, given the way the first two games of the series has gone, promises to be exciting.

Rich Harden (9-2, 1.99) is slated to pitch for the Cubs, opposed by the Cards' Todd Wellemeyer (12-6, 3.74). Game time is 7:15 p.m. CT.

photos by Barbara Moore