MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Cards turn downward slide into upward momentum

Matheny on win: 'These are the kind of fights we don't mind being in'

Cards turn downward slide into upward momentum

ST. LOUIS -- Here were the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that was 86-46 on Sept. 1, the team had been the best in baseball over the first five months of the season.

Over the past week, they hadn't been themselves. They had lost five of six, including two of three to the Pirates, the second-place team in the National League Central. And they had lost the first two games of a three-game series to the Cubs, the third-place team in the NL Central.

These losses occurred at Busch Stadium. Three of them were the result of distinctly sub-standard performances by starting pitchers. The factors that the Cardinals had counted on all spring and summer seemed to be fraying.

And on Wednesday at Busch Stadium, they were down, 3-1, by the second inning. They stayed there until the eighth. Through seven innings, they had only two hits against Cubs starter Jon Lester. But between a stirring rally and four superb innings from the bullpen (one hit, no runs, no walks, six strikeouts) the Redbirds managed a 4-3 victory.

Suddenly, the baseball world was taking on that Cardinal glow again. The crowd of 43,557 at Busch Stadium was reminded that this was exactly the sort of team they had come to expect. This was still an indomitable group, a find-a-way bunch that would not stop searching for a path to victory.

"I just don't get tired of talking about it," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "They just find a way. They scratch and claw. They look for a way to get back into a game.

"It's different guys all the time. They're not afraid to do their piece and then let the next guy do his. Against some very good teams, against some very good pitchers, our offense has been able to do that.

"In a tight game like that, you need to have a bunch of things go your way, and the other thing was the bullpen, down to Trevor [Rosenthal] closing it out at the end. We could have had a situation early, where you get down and you kind of have the wind knocked out of you. Not this group."

The hit that put the Cardinals ahead was a two-run double in the eighth, delivered by rookie outfielder Stephen Piscotty. He has repeatedly demonstrated remarkable poise in clutch situations. Piscotty knew a large victory when he saw one.

"It was definitely good to get that one," Piscotty said. "You don't want to be swept by the Cubs."

And for much of the afternoon, a Cubs sweep seemed like a likely outcome. The Cards had gambled on playing a center fielder who was unable to throw at full strength. The gamble did not pay off.

Randal Grichuk, coming off a stay on the disabled list with elbow inflammation, had returned with a flourish on Tuesday night, hitting a 451-foot home run in a pinch-hit appearance. On Wednesday, the Cardinals were eager to get his bat into the lineup against the lefty Lester. They started Grichuk in center, despite the fact that he was not able to make normal throws. With two outs and Chris Coghlan on first in the first inning, Anthony Rizzo delivered a hit to center. Grichuk flipped the ball to right fielder Jason Heyward so Heyward could make the throw to the infield. This didn't happen in the blink of an eye. Coghlan scored all the way from first. Rizzo rounded second and was apparently trapped in a rundown between second and third. But he reached third when the Cards didn't cover the base. Tommy La Stella's double scored Rizzo.

In the second, Lester jogged home from second on a single to center, as Grichuk fielded the ball and then lobbed it back into the infield.

"It didn't take long for us to find out how that was going to work," Matheny said. "That was the risk we took going into this. It got us. We try to find ways to help our offense. You've got to live with them. Sometimes it goes the way you wanted, other times not so much."

But victory is the best medicine for a risk that has gone astray. The Grichuk experiment in center may be tried again, Matheny indicated, and there is the hope that improvement in the elbow will allow Grichuk to be a fully functioning outfielder.

In the meantime, here are the Cardinals, solidly back in the victory column.

"The one constant is the fact that they keep playing," Matheny said of his team. "I know it's redundant, we've talked about it too much. But I do keep remembering the whole time, everybody's talking about it, the bench guys, the starting pitchers, everybody is saying, 'Keep going, keep going.'

"This isn't unfamiliar territory for us. This is the kind of baseball we play, these are the kind of fights we don't mind being in. We're going to take our chances here, if we just stay the course."

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.