Cards extend division lead with extra-inning win

Cards extend division lead with extra-inning win

Cards extend division lead with extra-inning win

MILWAUKEE -- The National League Central race took center stage in Pittsburgh on Friday, where the Pirates and the Reds met for the first of six head-to-head games in the regular season's closing stretch. The Cardinals could follow the Steel City happenings on the out-of-town scoreboard at Miller Park but also knew that their own playoff seeding was squarely in their hands.

The Cardinals had a one-game division lead when the night started. By night's end, they had overcome Aramis Ramirez's five-RBI night and another ninth-inning implosion to increase that cushion to two games.

John Axford, in his return to Miller Park, helped bail Edward Mujica out of a ninth-inning mess, setting the stage for the offense to capitalize against old friend Michael Blazek, the pitcher swapped for Axford less than four weeks ago. With a go-ahead sacrifice fly from Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals took a 7-6 lead that rookie Carlos Martinez would hold.

The win, which came in front of a crowd of 37,148, reduced the Cardinals' magic number for a postseason berth to two. But it was also shrouded in concern, as a brewing closer crisis boiled over at the most precarious point in the season. A day after blowing a save in Colorado, Mujica lost a two-run advantage on Friday. It was his third blown save in his last five chances.

"We have some challenges here to figure out what we're going to do," said manager Mike Matheny, refraining from making any knee-jerk change to the bullpen structure. "We'll take a deep breath and check everything out and figure out what we can do to help get him right."

The Cardinals move forward with that pursuit as they continue to eye a division title. Because the Reds stunned Pittsburgh with a ninth-inning comeback and extra-inning win, St. Louis' magic number for a division title shrinks to seven. Those two division contenders now have identical records.

"This time of year, every game is crucial," said Matt Carpenter, who, with two doubles, tied Stan Musial's club-record of 53 for most by a left-handed hitting Cardinal. "Really just to grind it out with a no-stop attitude with the club and fighting until the last play and last out, it's a big win."

On a night when Ramirez tried to singlehandedly bury the Cardinals, the offense found success knocking around the Brewers' bullpen. Four seventh-inning hits -- including RBI knocks by Beltran and Matt Adams -- notched the game at 4-4.

In the bottom half of the frame, Beltran preserved that tie by throwing out Norichika Aoki as he tried to score from second on Ramirez's single to right.

"We are facing a guy, Aramis Ramirez, who is a Cardinal killer," catcher Yadier Molina said. "Carlos was in good position, the ball was hit hard and he threw the perfect throw."

The Cardinals twice couldn't push a runner home from third in the eighth, but Adams delivered the go-ahead blast off a Jim Henderson 97-mph fastball an inning later. Wearing a bulky brace because of recent elbow irritation, Adams hushed concerns about the injury with his three-hit night.

He has six home runs and 12 RBIs as Allen Craig's fill-in.

"Allen Craig goes down and it's something that obviously none of us anticipated and/or wanted," Carpenter said. "But for him to step in and do what he's done, it's been huge for us."

Having given Mujica a vote of confidence earlier in the day, Matheny believed the ninth set up well for his embattled closer. Though Mujica would be pitching for a third straight day, he'd be facing the bottom of the Brewers order with a two-run cushion.

But there was trouble from the start.

A leadoff double and two consecutive one-out singles brought the Brewers to within one. After a walk loaded the bases for Ramirez, Matheny turned to Axford. An infield single brought the tying run home, but Axford extended the night by getting Carlos Gomez to ground into an inning-ending double play.

"I wanted to leave all of Edward's runners out there, but unfortunately that didn't work out," Axford said. "At the same time, fortunately I was able to get a groundball right after that and get us right back in the dugout."

"The last thing we thought was that Gomez would hit into a double play," added Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, whose team is now 4-13 against the Cardinals this season.

Given the extension, the Cardinals quickly answered. Pinch-hitter Kolten Wong drew a leadoff walk and moved to third on Carpenter's double. Beltran lifted a ball to the warning track to drive in the game-winning run.

Having already used five relievers, Matheny turned to the rookie Martinez for the save. Martinez fell behind, 2-0, to the first batter, prompting a mound visit from Molina. Martinez went on to retire the side in order for his first career save.

"People are always asking what makes [Molina] so valuable besides the statistics," Matheny said. "It's just one of those things that there's no category for what he just did right there. He just continues to do things to help us win that amaze all of us."

The late offense helped the Cardinals overcome Ramirez's big night. After scoring just three runs off Shelby Miller in 25 innings this year, the Brewers doubled that total with Ramirez's first-inning swing. The Brewers' third baseman followed a pair of singles with his 11th home run, giving Milwaukee the early 3-1 lead.

Ramirez drove home Milwaukee's fourth run off Miller with a fifth-inning sacrifice fly. Miller went on to finish six innings, but he was taken off the hook for his 10th loss when the Cardinals scored twice right after his departure.

St. Louis had all sorts of chances to build the score against rookie starter Johnny Hellweg, who nevertheless maneuvered through five innings while allowing just two of 13 baserunners to score. The only two runs to score came on Matt Holliday's RBI singles.

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.