ATLANTA — The St. Louis Cardinals offered April a proper send-off Saturday afternoon at Turner Field. Righting a month that tested them early, they persevered against the Atlanta Braves in a situation that probably would have consumed them a year ago.
Checked on two hits for seven innings by Braves starting pitcher Brandon Beachy, the Cardinals overcame a 2-0 deficit with two eighth-inning runs before winning on their backup catcher’s RBI triple in the ninth for a 3-2 victory.
In a welcome change, the Cardinals left the questions for someone else’s bullpen.
“This is a game we wouldn’t have won last year,” second-year hitting coach Mark McGwire insisted. “But no one was bagging it today; everyone kept grinding. That’s the way this team is. That’s what’s so exciting about what’s happening around here.”
The team that began the season 2-6 finished the schedule’s first month 16-11 and with six consecutive series wins. After scraping for 21 runs in their first eight games, the Cardinals averaged better than 6.5 runs in the last 19. An unsettled bullpen took its turn at creating a crisis, but the Cardinals wouldn’t have won the last two games without seven scoreless innings from the cast.
“I’ve liked our club from Day One. I like our talent. We’ve got guys on this team who like to compete,” manager Tony La Russa said. “We’re not perfect. But it’s about what Catfish Hunter used to say: ‘It’s not about being perfect. It’s trying perfect.’ There are a lot of times when the other side just beats you. But I think we are going to try perfect.”
Held to three baserunners through seven innings, the Cardinals produced seven in the last two.
“It’s always easy to win by 10 runs,” Laird said. “To come out and win two big games like this, coming back, shows a lot.”
After using pinch hitter Nick Punto to force Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez’s hair-trigger lurch to the bullpen in the eighth, the Cardinals’ makeshift lineup scored twice on third baseman David Freese’s two-out, two-run single an inning before Gerald Laird’s RBI triple saddled rookie Braves closer Craig Kimbrel with the loss.
Punto, incidentally, entered the game for the sole purpose of bunting.
“That kid (Beachy) today had it going on with really good stuff. He wasn’t missing a lot,” McGwire said. “We just kept fighting The big thing is when they bring in (Jonny) Venters and Kimbrell and get to those guys”& it’s guys in the bottom of the lineup. Guys keep grinding it.”
Saturday’s turnabout occurred only hours after the Cardinals scored a ninth-inning run against Kimbrell before winning 5-3 in 11 innings Friday night.
Left fielder Matt Holliday started the ninth with a leadoff, opposite-field single against Kimbrell. Two hitters later Laird drove a ball to the left-center field wall for his first triple since 2009. Laird’s hit produced his second RBI of the season. Nos. 7-8 hitters Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene scored two of the three runs after reaching base three times in the last two innings.
“As close as that game was, you needed everything,” La Russa said.
“You look around this clubhouse and a lot of guys have done what we did today for years,” Freese said. “For a guy like me, it’s cool to learn how to go about that. The way to do that is to prepare every day and focus.”
Freese’s game-tying single off lefthander Venters left the Cardinals with 73 two-out RBIs among their 137 total — 53.2 percent. They enter May leading the league in hitting, runs and total bases and entered Saturday fifth in earned-run average.
“When you can do that with two outs, it puts a lot of pressure on the other dugout,” Freese said. “It shows we’re going to bear down, take every at-bat seriously, and see what we can do.”
Friday night the Cardinals bullpen held the Braves for four hitless innings. Saturday Mitchell Boggs, Miguel Batista (2-1) and Fernando Salas worked three shutout frames with Salas claiming his second major-league save. The bullpen’s stand rewarded starter Jake Westbrook with a no-decision rather than an ill-deserved loss.
“I’m trying to do whatever they ask of me,” said Salas, who also closed Thursday’s win in Houston. “Whether it’s the sixth inning or the ninth inning, it doesn’t matter.
Westbrook surrendered two runs in six innings. The Braves’ only rally would not have been possible had Greene cleanly backhanded a leadoff grounder generously scored an infield single. Left fielder Martin Prado exploited the extra out with a two-out double over third base.
“I was one out away, one pitch away, from having a real good ballgame,” Westbrook said. “I got a ground ball there. It found a line, and it was a couple runs.”
There, Westbrook held. Still susceptible to occasionally picking at the strike zone, he was aggressive enough with the Braves’ most dangerous hitters to overcome “erratic” lapses.
“It’s more fun to think something might work when on the other side (they) score a couple and don’t add,” La Russa said. “You keep putting up zeroes and something can happen.”
Scraping for runs, the Braves ran themselves out of a promising first inning when Prado was nabbed for the first out after breaking for third base on a left-side ground ball. Trying to regain scoring position, right fielder Jason Heyward was caught stealing by Laird’s perfect throw. Westbrook walked his third batter faced before ending the inning with a ground ball.
“It’s what I’m capable of doing,” said Westbrook, who has allowed eight hits in 12 innings his last two starts after surrendering 30 hits in 18 1/3 innings through four starts. “My job is to get them to mis-hit balls. Those are coming a little more often now. I’m making pitches when I need to. I feel a lot better out there.”
The Associated Press