April 29, 2009

Cards take lesson - That's how you close

Sometimes edging a team has a double-edge, and this time, it was the Atlanta Braves that edged the St. Louis Cardinals, Tuesday night, 3-2.

Jo-Jo Reyes, Atlanta's starter, ended up with no decision, but certainly staked his claim on that mound, cooling all but two of the Cards' bats, and then, only giving up three hits. All the hits were singles, two by Yadier Molina and one by Kyle Lohse.

It was shocking the Cards scratched out any runs at all, the stingy Reyes walking out only one while striking out seven Cards.

Atlanta's relievers gave up nothing behind Reyes, effectively shutting the door on this new Tony La Russa lineup. Peter Moylen struck out a Card in his eighth inning set-up appearance for Atlanta. Closer Mike Gonzalez showed off his rock-n-get-ready-here-it-comes style, defining for Cardinal Nation what a closer does, without any dancing around the subject or worry about over-exposure.

Gonzalez as much as said, "I'm the closer, this is what a closer does," and promptly blew through Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols, and Ryan Ludwick, all strikeout victims. There was no pitching around anybody, and nothing but a total challenge. Although it was hard for Cardinal Nation to take, there was no four-finger wiggling going on by Braves' manager Bobby Cox from the dugout.

The closing was so impressive that other pitchers may need to ask Mr. Gonzalez' permission to use the mound from now on.

A Braves' roster that's a little dinged might take solace in that they only have to cover eight innings for win instead of the usual nine.

Kyle Lohse pitched well for the Cardinals, who sputtered offensively and were unable to give him a bit more backing. Lohse pitched with a one-run lead for his work of six innings.

Lohse had a few challenges to overcome, but his success had to have ridden on the fact that he was ahead of many Braves' hitters. The challenge was that he wasn't painting as well as normally does, and ended up giving away four walks. Some of those walks, by the way, were to Chipper Jones, so the idea may easily have been that if anyone would beat you, it wouldn't be him.

Still, Lohse had six strikeouts, and the sum equals a lot on pitching that wasn't for contact. Hence, up goes the pitch count, meaning that the energy gets used up quickly. Quite frankly, it was surprising that Lohse went six innings. He appeared tired in the fifth, having gotten little down time when the Cards' hitters went down one-two-three just before. Lohse supplied a one-two-three of his own, his defense helping him secure a quick inning in the bottom of the frame.

The Cards, however, went down three in a row once more in the top of the sixth, and on few Reyes pitches. Lohse answered for the bottom of the sixth, but was obviously gassed, falling way farther off on his follow-through than usual, his release point erratic at times, and with the general look of a pitcher out of kilter with his normal look of good mechanics. It's called getting tired, and it happens to everyone.

Jason Motte would come on with a closer-like performance in the seventh, although he did give up one basehit. Motte's slider/cutter seemed to be under control and effective once more, and may be his answer to a continued rise to more successful pitching.

The Cardinal who had the bad night was reliever Kyle McClellan, who took the hill with a 1-0 lead in the eighth and left-handed specialist Dennys Reyes warming for any situational relief pitching which might develop. This was one set-up appearance McClellan would probably like to forget.

The one thing you don't want to do if you're a reliever in the late innings of a one-run ball game is walk anybody. The exception might be an open first base which, if filled purposely, would supply force outs at more than one base. McClellan, however, gave a free pass to the first hitter he faced, Omar Infante.

Yunel Escobar then sacrifice bunted Infante to second base, putting him in scoring position so the Braves could take their shot at tying the game. Molina pounced on the bunt and threw Escobar out. McClellan then walked Chipper Jones, not intentionally, by looks, anyway, but certainly giving him nothing unless he wanted to chase. Jones didn't, taking the semi-intentional walk and becoming the lead run on first base.

This brought up a Brave which had done some damage to the Cardinals on Monday night, Casey Kotchman. And Kotchman may have been McClellan's shining moment, as he struck him out of some nasty breaking stuff, the final strike on a curve-dirt-ball, Kotchman chasing.

McClellan just couldn't stand prosperity, though, walking Jeff Francoeur, loading the bases with Braves, more than enough base runners to give them a lead if he wasn't able to deliver on the next hitter.

Matt Diaz, who was 0-for-3 at that point, grounded toward the middle, a ground ball usually well within the range of Cards' shortstop Khalil Greene, but who was playing Diaz to pull much harder. Greene never reached the grounder, which scooted through to left center field. Infante and Jones scored, Francoeur advancing to third base, the Braves suddenly reversing the one-run lead of the Cards into their own slight margin of lead at 2-1.

At this point, La Russa brought in D. Reyes to face the left-handed swinging Jordan Schafer, who struck out swinging.

Even more suddenly, the Cardinals' realized they only three outs with which to get back in the game, but then came the aforementioned performance of Gonzalez, and within moments of the late Braves' rally, the continuing ninth inning ovation ran on past the game as the Braves evened the three-game series at Turner Field, a game each.

The rubber game plays Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m. CT, also at Turner Field in Atlanta.
photo by jodieandlarry

Probable pitchers for Wednesday night's game are:

  • STL-- Adam Wainwright RHP (2-0, 2.70)
  • ATL-- Javier Vasquez RHP (2-1, 2.63)