Cards get to Dempster early to earn win in opener

Cards get to Dempster early to earn win in opener

Cards get to Dempster early to earn win in opener
ST. LOUIS -- Only hours before the Cardinals opened a seven-game homestand with a 4-1 win over the Cubs, manager Mike Matheny spoke of both urgency and understanding.

The urgency was a byproduct of results, most recently a 1-5 road trip that dropped St. Louis a season-worst five games out of first place. Though hardly scoreboard watching in July, a swelling division deficit is of growing concern.

The understanding, while partially reflective, was also forward thinking. It referenced, as Matheny explained it, an awareness that this team should be much more.

Both came together on Friday, as a Cardinals club that readily describes itself as having underachieved thus far, found a way to integrate all facets of its game en route to a desired outcome in front of 43,786 at Busch Stadium. For a change, a strong starting performance was supported by sufficient offense and a shutdown bullpen.

"That's a good formula right there," said winning starter Kyle Lohse. "I think we're very capable of going on a tear like that, doing the things we did tonight. I think everyone in here knows where we think we should be and it's not where we're at. Hopefully tonight was a little jump-start."

It's a relatively simple formula, too. Yet, it has been all-too elusive as of late.

"The guys know that what we have is a good club," Matheny said. "It's just a matter of us putting our money where our mouth is and playing better and more consistent baseball. We're not sitting back idly waiting for it to happen. Just, so far, we haven't been able to click on all cylinders yet."

Friday was at least a start in that direction.

After losing five of their last six games despite being outscored by only six runs, the Cardinals made Chicago's Ryan Dempster a surprising victim of their quick offensive burst.

Dempster took the mound carrying a 33-inning scoreless streak. He also shouldered a burden of fluidity, cognizant that this start could be his last for Chicago. The Cubs are looking to trade him, and looking to do so soon.

The Cardinals did not boost that trade value, hitting Dempster with four straight one-out singles. The latter two -- from Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina -- each pushed across a run. Lance Berkman drove home another with a groundout.

The five-batter sequence lasted only eight pitches. But in that span, a Cardinals team that hadn't scored more than three runs in a game since the All-Star break held a 3-0 lead.

"We knew we had to go out there and score," Beltran said. "He had been pitching great and all that, but our plan was to get on base and be able to score early. Offensively, we have wasted a lot of opportunities to score and win ballgames."

Kyle Lohse needed no more cushion, providing the Cardinals with another seven-inning start. Lohse allowed one run and has now gone at least seven innings deep in seven of his last eight starts. He becomes the second St. Louis starter to reach the 10-win mark.

Lohse did so, too, while battling through an evening in which his pitches weren't crisp and the strike zone wasn't ideal.

"I kind of knew coming in that it was one of those days where you have kind of a low-energy day," Lohse said. "I knew warming up that I was going to have to grind through it, make some pitches."

Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist picked up on Lohse's laboring early. But there was no need for early assistance from the bullpen, as Lohse continually skirted around trouble. He gave up one run in the second, though that was seen as a successful wrap to an inning that began with runners on the corners and no out.

And while Lohse's strike zone from home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom was consistent, it was consistently high. That can be a dangerous area to aim, but Lohse found a way to work within it by relying heavily on his changeup and slider.

He got a boost, too, when Matt Holliday crushed Dempster's 2-1 split-finger fastball past the 'Big Mac Land' sign in the second deck of left field to pad the lead in the third.

"That ball was killed," Matheny said afterward. "That was the longest one I've seen."

That wasn't hyperbole, either.

The estimated distance of the shot was 469 feet, a Busch Stadium III record. According to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, only four balls have traveled farther in the Majors this season.

"I've hit balls like that in batting practice before," said Holliday. "You just have to get him when he makes mistakes. The thing about a split-finger is usually they hang, and that's what happened on that one."

Dempster didn't allow another run in his six-inning start, but the four were enough to send him to his first loss since May 25.

"After [the first inning], I felt I settled down, other than Matt Holliday hitting one off the [St. Louis] arch," Dempster said. "We got out-pitched tonight. ... That's one of the toughest lineups in the league."

Holliday's blast and Lohse's best were followed by an efficient trio of Mitchell Boggs, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Motte out of the 'pen. Though a two-out double kept the two innings of relief from being perfect, there was no damage done. Motte collected his 21st save with a six-pitch ninth.

The Cardinals needed the victory, too, to keep pace with division front-runners Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Both were winners on Friday. St. Louis is now 48-45 on the year.

"We have to win games if we want to play in the postseason," Holliday said. "Two games over .500 isn't going to do it. We have enough talent in this room that that's not necessarily where our record should be."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.