PHILADELPHIA — Perhaps when you have been 10 1 / 2 games out of a playoff spot with less than five weeks remaining in the regular season and have lived to tell about it, the predicament that faced the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday night didn’t seem so daunting. Nonetheless, they could not have felt good about seeing their ace clobbered in the early innings of Game 2 of the National League Division Series — a series in which they already trailed by a game — and being down four runs to the premier left-hander pitcher in baseball.
What followed, though, changed the complexion of the series, affirmed the Cardinals’ growing belief that they have something special in their midst this season, and served notice to the mighty Philadelphia Phillies that they will have to do something more if they expect to win than simply pencil in the name of their ace du jour on the lineup card.
Rip the game right out of Cliff Lee’s powerful grip? Shut down the Phillies’ offense with six one-hit innings from your bullpen? Silence the largest crowd, 46,575 strong, in the history of Citizens Bank Park? And turn the NLDS, in effect, into a best-of-three series in which the Cardinals hold home-field advantage? The Cardinals did all those things in an improbable 5-4 victory that sent the series back to St. Louis tied at a game apiece.
“We weren’t happen [to be down], because we know who [Lee] is, how he pitches, the team he plays in front of,” said Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa. “But we keep things real simple. We just are going to play nine [innings] come hell or high water.”
On August 27, the computer-simulation Web site coolstandings.com gave the Cardinals a 1.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, yet they caught and passed the Atlanta Braves on the season’s final day to win the wild card. Their odds of winning Sunday night’s game at the end of three innings were not quite so steep, but trailing four runs to one of the best pitchers of this generation, the Cardinals faced another monumental task.
“Had it been in the seventh or eighth inning, I think it would have been a different story,” said Cardinals second baseman Ryan Theriot, who hit two doubles and scored two runs against Lee. “But it was early in the game. At that point we had a lot of outs to give. Plenty of time.”
When Lee walked Lance Berkman to lead off the top of the fourth, it was an ominous sign for the 33-year-old lefty. In his last three starts of the regular season, covering 22 innings, Lee didn’t issue a single walk. But now, he had issued two in a span of three batters, and the Berkman walk spiraled into a three-run inning for the Cardinals that pulled them to within 4-3. Only a pinpoint throw to the plate by Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez on Rafael Furcal’s single — and a tough non-fumble by catcher Carlos Ruiz, who held onto the ball despite being hammered by base runner Jon Jay — preserved the slim lead.
An inning later, though, when another fine throw home from Ibanez, on a single by Jay, was just a little high, the game was tied. And an inning after that, when Allen Craig tripled off Shane Victorino’s glove in center field, and Pujols singled him home, Lee and the Phillies were suddenly trailing, 5-4.
“I take full responsibility,” Lee said. “Anytime I get a four-run lead in the second inning I feel like I’ve got the game pretty well in hand. . . . I somehow squandered it away.”
Perhaps the aura of invincibility surrounding Lee warrants some reconsideration. He did, after all, lose twice in the 2010 World Series, while pitching for Texas, giving up a total of nine earned runs — which means, counting Sunday night’s performance, he has given up 14 earned runs in his last 172 / 3 postseason innings.
Each team had six at-bats with runners in scoring position in the first two innings. The Cardinals went 0 for 6, with none of the six at-bats producing a ball that left the infield. The Phillies, on the other hand, went 3 for 6, the big blow a two-run single up the middle by Ryan Howard. Through two innings, the Phillies were leading 4-0, and the assumption throughout Citizens Bank Park was that the game was over.
Cardinals veteran right-hander Chris Carpenter, pitching on three days’ rest for the first time in 340 big league starts (regular and postseason combined), needed 23 pitches to record his first out, put himself in a 4-0 hole before he batted for the first time, and ultimately lasted only three innings.
Both Carpenter and Lee had issues with home-plate umpire Jerry Meals’s strike zone, and La Russa went so far as to rip Meals during his mid-game interview on TBS.
“Whatever the strike zone is, we’ll adjust,” La Russa said after the game, in regards to Meals’s strike zone. “[But] he had to figure out what the strike zone was.”
Against the Cardinals’ bullpen, the Phillies’ offense — which had produced 15 runs in the first 11 innings of the series — went cold. At one point, 15 consecutive batters went down, and when shortstop Jimmy Rollins finally broke the string with a two-out single in the bottom of the seventh, putting the tying run on base, he was promptly picked off trying to steal.
La Russa emptied his bullpen as only La Russa can, at one point using four different relievers in a four-batter span to navigate the dangerous heart of the Phillies’ order in the eighth.
A light, cold rain was falling by the time the Phillies went down in order in the ninth inning against Cardinals closer Jason Motte. As the Cardinals shook each other’s hands on the infield, the Phillies scurried back to their clubhouse, tagged with a loss they could not have seen coming just a couple of hours earlier.