ST. LOUIS — The starting pitcher had carried the game all the way to the seventh inning, a rare luxury for the St. Louis Cardinals this postseason, and with a one-run lead and nine outs to go, the 46,406 red-clad faithful in attendance Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, home of the savviest fans in baseball, could practically pinch-manage the rest of Game 1 of the World Series for Tony La Russa.
Five pitching changes and one clutch pinch-hit later, the Cardinals had escaped with a 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers in the opening game of the Fall Classic.
A game that featured serviceable starts from Texas left-hander C.J. Wilson and St. Louis right-hander Chris Carpenter — the latter of whom became the first Cardinals starter to record an out past the fifth inning in nearly two weeks — pivoted on a two-out RBI single by Allen Craig, pinch-hitting for Carpenter, down the right-field line off Alexi Ogando in the bottom of the sixth inning, breaking a 2-2 tie.
“We have to win the National League-style games if we’re going to win this thing,” said right fielder Lance Berkman, who drove in the Cardinals’ first two runs with a fourth-inning single, “and this was a National League-style game — 3-2, good pitching, good defense, timely hitting. I don’t think we want to get into a gorilla-ball-type series with these guys.”
Carpenter improved to 8-2 in his postseason career with his six-inning stint — “Exactly what we needed,” La Russa said — while Wilson earned the distinction of becoming the first pitcher in history to absorb losses in the All-Star Game, a division series, a league championship series and the World Series in the same season.
“Sometimes you have to accept the other team is really good,” Wilson said. “The best-laid plans go to waste when you make a mistake.”
After Carpenter’s exit, it was manage-by-numbers, and anyone who has been following the Cardinals this postseason could play along as La Russa navigated the final three innings. First up would be Fernando Salas, in the top of the seventh, to get through the right-handers in the middle of the Rangers’ lineup. Next, left-hander Marc Rzepczynski for the two lefties at the bottom. Rangers Manager Ron Washington would deploy a pair of right-handed pinch-hitters, but Rzepczynski would strike them both out.
“When I got to the mound, Tony just said, ‘Stay relaxed and go out and throw your pitches,’ ” Rzepczynski said. “He’s been real good at matching things up for us this postseason.”
In the eighth, it would be veteran right-hander Octavio Dotel — who has pitched everywhere from the fifth to the eighth inning this month — for the two right-handed hitters at the top of the Rangers’ order, then veteran lefty Arthur Rhodes to get Josh Hamilton, the Rangers’ left-handed-hitting slugger.
“Nobody has roles in our bullpen,” Dotel said. “Nobody.”
Finally, in the ninth, here came Jason Motte, the Cardinals’ wild-bearded, hard-throwing closer. He delivered a 1-2-3 inning — finishing it off by retiring Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz on a fly ball at the end of a seven-pitch battle — that leaves him with the equivalent of a nine-inning, no-walk, one-hit shutout this postseason.
“We certainly didn’t lose tonight — we got beat,” Washington said. “They had an opportunity to push a run across. The pinch-hitter got it done, and ours didn’t.”
A cold, rainy afternoon in St. Louis gave way to a cold, dry evening. It was 49 degrees at first pitch, and the 10 World Series championship pennants above the stands in right field blew stiff in the breeze. The Secret Service snipers atop the stadium’s rim — there because of the presence of first lady Michelle Obama — were bundled in heavy coats and hats.
But Carpenter, a New Hampshire native, shrugged off the conditions and delivered a performance marred only by Mike Napoli’s titanic opposite-field homer in the fifth. He even contributed the defensive play of the night in the opening inning, running to cover first on a grounder to Pujols, diving to snag Albert Pujols’s errant toss, then crashing into the bag to record the out while also avoiding base runner Elvis Andrus’s spikes.
The bullpens didn’t get involved until the bottom of the sixth, when Washington brought in right-hander Ogando, his flamethrowing, midgame rescuer, for Wilson with two outs, runners on the corners and Craig at the plate in a 2-2 game. Ogando’s four pitches in the at-bat were 97, 96, 97 and 98 mph, but the last of those caught a little too much plate, and Craig sent it slicing down the right-field line, where a sliding try by Nelson Cruz came up short.
“It was really close,” Cruz said of his pursuit of Craig’s hit. “I kind of got [a cleat] stuck when I went to slide.”
It was a game that could have gone either way, where one more big hit or one more big pitch would have swayed the outcome, where one managerial misstep could have spelled doom, and where one cleat stuck in one chunk of earth may have been the difference between a win and a loss.
But it sure seems remarkable, and more than a little telling, how often this type of game winds up in the Cardinals’ favor.