April 30, 2011: In addition to a strong finish by the Cardinals in the 2011 season, an epic collapse on the part of the Atlanta Braves was required if the Redbirds were to have any chance of catching them in the NL Wild Card race. Of course, the Braves did their part - capped off by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies at home to close out the season. Earlier in the evening of MLB Game 162, Chris Carpenter had no trouble dispatching the Houston Astros, giving his team a chance to relax in the visitor's clubhouse to watch Freddy Freeman's double-play grounder abruptly end Atlanta's frustrating season.
However, what enabled that Happy Flight can be directly linked to a late April three-game series at Turner Field when the Cardinals won two out of three from Atlanta, including the unlikely comeback they were able to pull off on this particular Saturday afternoon against one of the best bullpens in baseball. In the end, the Braves' closer, Greg Kimbrell, would be knocked out of the game after recording only one out in the ninth-inning.
This unlikely comeback happened in a game when Albert Pujols went hitless, and Lance Berkman failed to deliver a crucial hit coming off the bench late in the game. It also happened on a day Yadier Molina was rested, but his replacement delivered the game winning hit. Go figure.
In the end, both teams would only muster six hits apiece, but it was St Louis getting the maximum reward for those hits by scoring one more run than Atlanta, in comeback fashion; with only a 10% "win probability" as late as the eighth-inning of this game (according to BaseballReference.com). Defying the odds would become a trend for the Redbirds. They were just getting warmed up.
The starting pitchers - Jake Westbrook for St Louis and Brandon Beachy for Atlanta - both pitched well, but neither one figured in the decision. Westbrook went six innings, allowing two runs on five hits and three walks. A two-run fifth-inning double by Atlanta's Martin Prado broke a scoreless tie.
Meanwhile, Beachy pitched seven complete innings, allowing the Cardinals just one hit and no runs until he took the mound in the eighth-inning, when the only two batters he faced - Daniel Descalso, who doubled, and Tyler Greene, who drew a base on balls - both scored.
Beachy was replaced by Johnny Venters, who appeared to be on his way to getting out of the jam after Nick Punto bunted both runners over (one out), he struck out Lance Berkman, who was pinch-hitting for Jon Jay (two out). However, David Freese came through with the big two-out hit to tie the game - a single to right field. It was the type of hitting that would earn Freese both the NLCS and World Series MVP honors a few months down the road.
LaRussa's bullpen took care of business after Westbrook was lifted; Mitchell Boggs pitched a scoreless seventh-inning, followed by the veteran Miguel Batista's scoreless eighth. The stage was set for Fernando Salas to record his second save of the season which would give Miguel Batista his second win of the season. All the Redbirds needed to do was score a ninth-inning run off the nearly invincible Craig Kimbrell.
Matt Holliday promptly greeted Kimbrell with a single to right field. Colby Rasmus then struck out. The next hitter was Gerald Laird, who seemed like a good candidate to either srike out or hit into a double play. Perhaps Kimbrell was trying to get the double play ball; instead, his catcher couldn't handle a hard slider- ruled a passed ball - which allowed Holliday to take second base.
First base was now open, but Kimbrell challenged Laird with a fastball which was ripped into the left-center field gap, easily scoring Holliday. By the time the ball could be retrieved, Laird was standing on third base. It would be the only triple he'd hit all season. The Cardinals would eventually load the bases with two out, but Lance Berkman struck out for the second time in two innings to end the threat - stranding a total of five baserunners in two plate appearances for the game.
But the damage had been done. The comeback the Cardinals were able to pull off against the Braves pales in comparison to what they would do in Game Six vs the Rangers. However, without this game in the "win column", Chris Carpenter's 8-0 shutout of the Astros on the last day of the season would have been meaningless.