By Joe Strauss, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
ST. LOUIS — Somewhere between first and second base the mob engulfed Rafael Furcal. They ripped at his jersey, punched him, grabbed him and made the little shortstop a throw toy.
Thanks, the Cardinals were saying, for breathing life back into a season.
An out away from suffering one of the worst in a long line of bullpen-related atrocities, the Cardinals rescued themselves Sunday with a string of dogged at-bats against Miami Marlins closer Heath Bell.
An inning that reached Furcal thanks to a .223-hitting teammate’s 10-pitch, two-out walk ended with the switch-hitter lashing a bases-loaded single that scored Matt Carpenter and David Freese for a 5-4 win at Busch Stadium. So close to four days of unwelcome reflection, the Cardinals instead improved to 46-40 with their second ninth-inning reversal of the season against the Marlins and Bell.
“It’s concentration,” Furcal said. “I want to poke a ball in play. I tried to put one the other way and that’s what happened.”
A game the Cardinals nearly squandered instead became a touchstone. They returned to six games above .500 for the first time since May 23 by winning the fourth of their last five series.
The RBI was Furcal’s first with the bases loaded since he worked a walk off Cardinals reliever Jason Motte while still with the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 16, 2010. Furcal’s last hit with bases loaded had been on July 3, 2010.
The win left the Cardinals with a sweltering 6-4 home stand. They remained 2½ games off the NL Central lead, a team potent enough to lead the National League in run differential (plus-70) but queasy whenever it allows its bullpen near the sixth and seventh innings.
“We’ve had a lot of damage done in the sixth and seventh,” manager Mike Matheny said prophetically before the game.
Furcal’s single through shortstop into left field wiped away all the angst and allowed the Cardinals to look forward to a healthier second half.
“The guys went out there and fought and played hard like they did all season,” Matheny said. “They’re just relentless in how they keep fighting and coming back.”
Running out of bench and bullpen, the Cardinals created their winning rally with Allen Craig’s one-out single and Carpenter’s ground-rule double. In the midst of a 34-pitch meltdown, Bell walked Freese to load the bases before Tony Cruz made it a one-run game with a sacrifice fly.
Replacement second baseman Daniel Descalso then constructed perhaps the game’s most important at-bat. After trailing Bell, 0-2, Descalso fouled off four pitches to earn a 10-pitch walk that loaded the bases for Furcal.
“That was an absolutely great at-bat by Daniel,” praised left fielder Matt Holliday. “He didn’t give in. We don’t win without it.”
Matheny admitted that a loss would have negatively affected this week’s down time. Craig called the reversal “as big as any win we’ve had this season.”
Sunday’s comeback papered over the collapse of righthanders Maikel Cleto and Victor Marte in the seventh inning, which turned a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit.
Curiously vulnerable against righthanded bats, the hard-throwing Cleto allowed the tying run to reach on Omar Infante’s one-out ground rule double before walking the go-ahead run. Matheny then called for Marte, who was very good in April and early May before losing effectiveness, rather than the ascending Fernando Salas. Pinch hitter Austin Kearns torched the move by launching Marte’s third pitch for a three-run home run.
Matheny referred to his seventh-inning choice of relievers as “a coin flip.” It is a luxury he probably won’t indulge again soon.
A clubhouse trustful of its lineup and its starting rotation has become increasingly impatient about its unresolved middle relief. Salas offers a potential solution after passing a kidney stone and repositioning himself on the mound. Cleto now carries a 7.00 ERA. Marte has allowed 27 hits and 10 earned runs in 181/3 innings covering his 19 appearances since May 24.
Matheny is increasingly confident in closer Jason Motte and set-up man Mitchell Boggs, who slipped a bases-loaded jam to end the ninth inning and has now stranded 26 of 28 inherited runners. Otherwise, a jump-ball situation persists.
“Every team holds its own destiny,” Matheny said before the game. “That’s where we are. This is coming together as well as any other time.”
Rookie starter Joe Kelly again cobbled together a quality start without a broad assortment. He walked five, struck out five and surrendered two hits in six innings. The Marlins got to him for an unearned first-inning run when third baseman Hanley Ramirez walked, stole twice and scored on catcher Cruz’s wide throw to third base.
Second baseman Skip Schumaker’s two-out single tied the score in the second inning. Cruz atoned for his error with a one-out double in the fourth. He scored on Furcal’s two-out single against Marlins starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Furcal’s three RBIs Sunday were only one less than in his previous 24 games.
A straightforward game quickly grew complicated after Kelly left.
Matheny used four relievers to get six outs before Marc Rzepczynski began the ninth. The lefthander somehow got two outs while becoming overheated and increasingly nauseous. “I don’t like to make excuses for how I pitch, but today I couldn’t keep focus,” Rzepczynksi said. “It was the most difficult circumstance I can remember pitching in. I was in trouble out there.”
Boggs inherited a mess on the eighth consecutive day he had either appeared in a game or warmed up.
“It wasn’t an easy day for anybody out there on either team,” Boggs said. “You get through it and move on to the second half. The way it turned out for us makes it a lot easier to do.”