April 9, 2009

Carpenter nails down comeback win

It was Chris Carpenter's first win in three years, and the odd thing about the Thursday afternoon game was that for several innings the former Cardinals ace was tossing a no-hitter -- down 1-0.

The Cards' 2-1 victory ended the first series of the season, a 2-2 split with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Thursday's game became a tough, head-to-head between starters Carpenter and the Bucs' Ross Ohlendorf: Carp throwing 92 pitches and Ohlendorf throwing 94 pitches.

The Pirates scored first, a run in the third, made possible by a throwing error by first baseman, Albert Pujols on a play at third base. The same base runner, Vasquez, scored on the next play, Pujols unable to throw him out at home, securing no error this time, but not the best of throws to teammate Yadier Molina, whose tag was not in time.

For four more innings, the 1-0 score held firm.

Meanwhile, Carpenter rolled on, putting down the Pirates' batsmen one-two-three in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. Then, in the seventh, he walked a batter and gave up a hit, needing to face five Bucs to get out of the frame and showing signs of tiring.

If not for the extended third inning, Carpenter may have gone on the pitch the eighth. As it was, he remained in the game with a no-hitter intact until that seventh inning. There was a chance to get out of the inning on a double play, but second baseman Skip Schumaker's feed to shortstop Khalil Greene at second base after taking a grounder was too wide. The lanky shortstop could not reign in the throw and relay in time to get hitter Branden Moss at first base. With the inning extended, Vasquez then singled up the middle, past a diving Schumaker, breaking up the no-hitter while obtaining what would be the Pirates' only hit of the game.

Maybe sensing that Carpenter was out of gas and would not return for the eighth inning, the offense went to work in the bottom of the seventh.

Ryan Ludwick, seemingly pressing for success since the start of Spring Training, broke through with a timely single to lead off the inning. Khalil Greene followed with a bunt that went for a single, pushing Ludwick to second base.

When it then appeared that Yadier Molina would sac-bunt, by showing his intention, he pulled back and slapped a single past a flat-footed Freddy Sanchez at second base, who had obviously been thinking bunt defense and leaning toward first base, the usual coverage for a second baseman in that situation. The Molina basehit scored Ludwick and sent Greene scampering to third base.

S. Burnett then came on to relieve Ohlendorf. And just when some thought manager Tony La Russa would bring in David Freese to pinch-hit, he brought in Brian Barden, needing a righty to pinch-hit for Joe Thurston, then play third base.

Barden came through with a clutch RBI single to center field, scoring Greene.

After pinch-hitter Brendan Ryan was hit by a pitch, Freese then got the call to pinch-hit (for Schumaker). At this time, the bases were set with Molina at third, Barden at second, and Ryan at first. Freese lined out to left field, advancing no base runners.

With one out, Colby Rasmus batted with the bases jammed with Cards. Rasmus hit a shallow pop fly ball to right field. Third base coach Jose Oquendo sent Molina, who tagged up and was thrown out easily at home plate, squandering an opportunity to bring up Pujols with the bases loaded.

Set-up reliever Ryan Franklin got the call from the bullpen, his job, to secure the eighth inning at the least. Franklin struck out Andy LaRoche, then got Morgan and Sanchez to fly out.

Pirates' reliever Tyler Yates came on to keep the Cards from adding to their slim one-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, getting Pujols to ground out, Chris Duncan to fly out, then striking out Ludwick.

La Russa went with lefthander Dennys Reyes to close with lefthanded hitters Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit coming up. Reyes threw ground outs to both McLouth and Doumit. Reyes then got pinch-hitter Monroe to fly out to end the game, picking up his first save in the process. Franklin earned a hold.

The game answered a big, nervous type of question mark for Carpenter and the Cards, but now that the former ace appears more than ready and able to perform, and perform to a high standard, there may well be a new confidence among the team.

On Friday, the last of the starters, Joel Pineiro will get his first turn of the 2009 season when he takes the mound for the Cardinals in a night game at Busch Stadium, the first game of three-game set versus the Houston Astros.