Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - At Busch Stadium III (Chris Carpenter - Starting Pitcher) - Opponent: Cincinnati Reds (Aaron Harang - Starting Pitcher) - Attendance: 42,761
This was a big game for St Louis - and Chris Carpenter knew it. The Cardinals had been struggling - to say the least - since the All Star break. A loss in tonight's game would put the Reds just a half game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central - with Houston not far behind. As far as Carp was concerned, this game was as "must win" as it gets in mid-August.
Offensively, the newest member of the Cardinals - second baseman Ronnie Belliard (acquired from Cleveland in exchange for Hector Luna on July 30) - drove in the first two runs for St Louis. In the second-inning, his two-out single scored Scott Rolen from second base - and in the fourth-inning, he immediately followed Juan Encarnacion's one-out double with a double of his own - to provide Carpenter with a 2-0 lead.
That lead was extended in the fifth-inning. After David Eckstein led-off with a single to center, Chris Duncan followed with a home run deep to right - one of twenty-two home runs Duncan would hit in just 95 games that season.
Albert Pujols - arguably the true NL MVP in '06 (based on WAR) - followed Duncan's blast with a double - then after moving up to third on a So Taguchi sacrifice bunt - scored when a rattled Aaron Harang uncorked a wild pitch to Rolen. Harang managed to get through the inning with just three runs scored, but his night was over after five-innings - down 5-0.
The Cincinnati bullpen - future Cardinal Ryan Franklin and Brian Shackelford combined for three innings of scoreless relief - although it didn't matter. Carpenter was in complete control of this game.
No relief was needed for the Cardinal ace, as he recorded the complete game shutout - allowing just four hits - walking none - and striking out six - to improve to 11-6 on the year. Strangely enough, after this performance, Carpenter's ERA fell to 3.09 - and that's exactly where it finished when the season ended. Most importantly, he would win four out of six decisions down the stretch - when every victory seemed so hard to come by as the Redbirds stumbled into the postseason by the slimmest of margins.
After this win, the Cardinals (63-55) were now 2.5 games ahead of the Reds (61-58) - and 6.5 games ahead of the Astros (57-62). After a lackluster 20-23 record for the rest of the season, the Redbirds (83-78) lost five games in the standings to Houston's 25-18 finish - who finished the season in second place (82-80). The Reds fell to third (80-82) - thanks to their even more lackluster 19-24 finish. Cincinnati had the opportunity to take control of the division - but it just wasn't in the cards.
By the time the postseason arrived, all that travail seemed like a distant memory. When the Redbirds won 11 postseason games in just 16 tries, they were world champions - a big shock to practically everybody outside of Cardinal Nation. After all, this is what the Cards did in the regular season against the three teams they faced in the postseason: Padres (2-4) - Mets (2-4) - Tigers (0-3) - Combined: (4-11) - Ug.
To those who thought St Louis had no chance against San Diego...absolutely no chance against New York...then who thought Detroit would sweep - all I can say is...They were due!