Big Guns Come Through for the Cardinals

Thursday in The Fast Lane, we talked about big-time, stalwart athletes coming through when their team absolutely needs them most. The conversation occurred because Chris Carpenter was pitching for the Cardinals, and because he needed to step up to keep the Redbirds in the National League Central division race.

A loss to Milwaukee would have knocked the Cardinals six games behind the Brewers with 44 games remaining. That would have been a daunting task. Being four games behind sounds much better than the alternative.

I brought up the 2000 Rams, who needed three wins down the stretch to make the playoffs. Lo and behold, Marshall Faulk scored four touchdowns against Minnesota, four at Tampa Bay, and three at New Orleans. With all the star power on that team, there was one guy that, when they needed it most, would take the ball and score, and it was Faulk. With his excellence and a little help from Bears kicker Paul Edinger, who beat Detroit on the last day of the season, the Rams did make the playoffs that year.

For the Cardinals, Carpenter has done it before. During tense stretch runs and playoffs, the horse of the starting rotation has stood tall more often than not. In the most crucial of games, post-season starts, he’s 5-2 with a 2.93 ERA. Most observers agree that, had the Cardinals had a healthy Carpenter for the 2004 World Series, the outcome would have been drastically different than the four-game sweep by the Red Sox.

On Thursday night, even though he didn’t have his best stuff and allowed 10 hits and three walks in eight innings, Carpenter was able to dance around all those base runners and allowed just two runs in the Redbirds’ 5-2 win over Milwaukee. The Brewers entered the contest having gone 8-3 against St. Louis this season, having won seven of their last eight over the Cards, and threatening to sweep a series against their closest pursuers.

So it was imperative that the biggest Cardinals stars assert themselves, and they did. The Cardinals’ ace, while not brilliant, did what No. 1 pitchers do. He held the Brewers to just two runs, which was perfect for the other biggest Cardinals star. After recent futility against the Brewers, Albert Pujols went 4-for-4 with his league-leading 28th home run, an RBI hit, and a run scored on a wild pitch. This was a dramatic turn of events for Pujols, who, as Bernie Miklasz had noted in Thursday’s Post-Dispatch, had struggled mightily against Brewers pitching so far in 2011.

Of course, this was just one step in the Cardinals’ recovery. In the Brewers series, Redbird starters turned in quality starts in each game. Edwin Jackson, Jake Westbrook and Carpenter all gave their team a chance to win. While those sorts of performances have been a rarity for the 2011 edition, with just 59 quality starts in 118 games, the Cardinals offense needs to be what it was Thursday.

Even with Matt Holliday out of the lineup, the Cardinals were able to put five runs on the board. In their hottest days this season, in April and May, the Cardinals averaged about 5.5 runs per game. When a club has a team ERA of 3.86 and has allowed an unearned run every other game, they need to score. Sure, Rafael Furcal has solidified the defense, but that was an obvious necessity. Furcal, despite hitting just .233 since his arrival, has scored eight runs in 11 games. He’s sparked the top of the lineup. Jon Jay is slowly coming out of his slumber. The Cardinals absolutely need Pujols, Holliday and Lance Berkman to be the centerpiece of their offense every night. If they can get occasional offense out of David Freese, Yadier Molina and the second baseman, that will be good enough.

For the final 44 games, Carpenter needs to be Carpenter. Jackson needs to do what he did Tuesday night. Westbrook needs to induce ground balls and provide more than six innings every start. Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse need to return to a semblance of their early-season form. And, of course, the new-look bullpen needs to be kept fresh.

As we’ve mentioned before, this team has the ability to make a run.

If not for their big guys, their centerpiece players, on Thursday night, that run would have been much more difficult, if not impossible. Because of Carpenter and Pujols the pulse is still there, still beating.