Monday, April 17, 2006

Pujols Packs a Punch; Three Homers Lead Cardinals to Win Over Reds

In a game that easily could have gone in either team's favor, the St. Louis Cardinals came out victorious over the Cincinnati Reds in an 8-7 slugfest. The offenses for both teams traded blows throughout Sunday's game in a fashion that was equally exciting but a polar opposite to the pitching duel that was seen in Friday night's 1-0 Reds' victory. When the dust settled, the Reds walked away more than bit dejected knowing they could have won the series, but the Cardinals got a huge team confidence boost thanks to star first baseman Albert Pujols in this one to get back to two games over .500 and tied with the Reds in third place in the NL Central.

Despite quality starts by both of the starters in this game (Bronson Arroyo for the Reds and Mark Mulder for the Cardinals) in previous games this season, this game was somewhat disastrous for both pitchers in only five innings of work that both managed to survive. Arroyo in his five innings allowed five runs (all earned) on six hits with an ugly three walks (after none in his previous two starts) and two homers back-to-back to Pujols and Scott Rolen in the bottom of the fifth. Mulder was only slightly more effective in allowing no walks but was hardly dominant in giving up four runs (all earned) on a whopping 10 hits and also two back-to-back homers to Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns in the top of the same fifth inning.

The Reds had struck first in this game with an RBI single by Kearns in the top of the first to score Ryan Freel. The Cards struck back in the bottom of that inning with a a bases-clearing, two-run triple by John Rodriguez that scored Pujols and David Eckstein. Both starting pitchers seemed to settle down through the next three innings until the fifth inning homers forced both out. Neither team scored in the sixth, and the Cardinals scored next in the bottom of the seventh on the second homer of the game (a solo shot) by Pujols. The score was 6-4 at that point through seven innings.

The Reds regained offensive control in the eighth inning thanks to a pinch-hit, leadoff homer by new acquisition Quinton McCracken. The Cards relieved Adam Wainwright, who had come in an inning earlier, with Randy Flores, who got the first out of the inning with a ground out by pinch hitter Javier Valentin. Flores then walked Ryan Freel before being relieved for Braden Looper (a double switch with Hector Luna to second base) after a fielding error by Juan Encarnacion allowed Freel to get to third and Felipe Lopez to be safe at first. Rich Aurilia drove both runners hom with a double that put the Reds back ahead for the first time since the fifth with the score at 7-6.

The Cardinals looked ready to strike back in the bottom of the eighth as Todd Coffey struggled a bit as the new reliever. After allowing a single to Encarnacion to start the inning, Encarnacion was caught stealing on a throw down by Valentin to second base. With one out, Luna singled, then Yadier Molina doubled, and Skip Schumaker was intentionally walked to load the bases (and set up a potential inning-ending double play). So Taguchi, the next batter, flied out harmlessly to shallow right, failing to score the runners. Coffey survived the inning as Eckstein flied out to Dunn in left field, and the score remained 7-6.

After the Reds went quietly 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, David Weathers was brought in to close out the Reds' victory. In an interesting move that reflected his hitting ability, Tony LaRussa pinch hit for one pitcher (Looper) with another pitcher (normal starter Jason Marquis). Marquis singled to center, proving his crafty manager right once again. That setup the defining moment of the game, as Albert Pujols stepped in to face Weathers as the potential winning run.

Pujols did not have a distinct advantage over Weathers in the at-bat, although he had previously homered against the closer when Weathers was a Met in the 2002 season at Shea Stadium but was only one for his last four (a single) in 2005 against him as a Red. With one swing of the bat on Sunday, Pujols crushed Weathers' offering deep to left field for a walk-off two-run homer that delivered a gift-wrapped win to the home team.

The Cardinals won the series two games to one, and both teams now have identical 7-5 win-loss records through their respective first 12 games. While the Reds could have used a boost to their confidence by knocking off the Cardinals and winning the series on the road (which they haven't done in some time, despite some success at home), they still managed to split their road trip with a 3-3 record after winning two of three at Chicago before the St. Louis series.

The Reds now must turn their attention to the visiting Florida Marlins, who come to town for a three-game series. This will be a very short homestand for Cincinnati as they must travel to Milwaukee for a tough four-game road series against the rebuilt Brewers (same 7-5 record and only one home loss) followed by a three-game set in Washington against the struggling Nationals (only 4-9 and winless at home so far). The positive for the Reds in this upcoming ten-game span is that only the Brewers have a winning record and the Marlins (worst) and Nationals (third-worst) have a combined 7-17 record to date. Those two teams just squared off this past weekend, with the Nationals taking two of three from the very inexperienced Marlins.

In tonight's (Monday) game, the Reds will send Brandon Claussen (0-1, with a somewhat deceptive 5.40 ERA) against Brian Moehler (0-2, with a not-so-deceptive 13.50 ERA). Moehler is 0-3 in his career starts against the Reds with a balloonish 7.06 ERA and .366 BAA. Claussen has only one career start against the Marlins but is 1-0 with no runs allowed in that one game. While this match-up tonight should clearly favor the home team, the Reds should leave nothing to chance with their depleted bullpen giving up a lot of runs in the past two games.

A complete game (or, at minimum, seven plus innings effort) by Claussen could relieve a lot of effort the bullpen has put into recent games. The offense could explode against Marlins' pitching at GABP this season, so let the fireworks begin! Look for the Reds to rebound and win at least two games in this series (with the Willis / Harang matchup on Wednesday the most intriguing) if not sweep them right out of town.

[reposted on The Sporting News at (aka Ramblings of Rentz: The RentzFree Sports Journal)]

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