St. Louis Cardinals Make Their Move


CINCINNATI–Allen Craig’s critical three-run homer that landed beyond the fence in deep centerfield at the Great American Ball Park had everything on it except air-mail postage. It was the blast that led the St. Louis Cardinals to an 8-5 victory Friday night at the beginning of a make-or-break road trip. And it was a message to the National League Central Division-leading Cincinnati Reds that the Cards could still haunt them.

The three-game series began with the Reds in first place by seven games over the defending World Series champions. A Cincinnati sweep may have been the stake through the heart that the Reds sought, ballooning their lead to 10 games by the end of the weekend. Instead, the Cardinals, who rallied from eight games back in the standings last year to make the playoffs in the last hour of the season, promptly trimmed the lead to six games.

Manager Mike Matheny has told his team to think one game at a time all year, living by the sports cliche. But even the rookie manager who replaced Tony La Russa for the 2012 season has budged from his boring mantra as the Cardinals embark on a road trip that will take them to Pittsburgh and Washington after Cincinnati. It is time to look ahead, is essentially what Matheny is now saying, if the Cardinals want to end this September with the same joy they ended last September.

“We’re not denying what all these games mean from here on out,” Matheny said.

Cincinnati has been playing as well as any team in the majors and liked the looks of the standings in the morning paper going into the game. Then the Reds pushed to a 5-2 lead after five innings, with Mat Latos on the mound. For two months, since June 25, Latos had recorded a 1.87 earned run average. But the Cardinals caught up with him. By the time Latos departed he had allowed seven earned runs.

The game-changing rally that sent 11 men to the plate and accounted for six runs in the sixth was started by outfielder Carlos Beltran. After Albert Pujols left as a free agent the signing of Beltran was St. Louis’ answer. He has 28 home runs and 85 RBIs, but Friday night jump-started the offense by sliding safely into first base to obtain an infield hit when first baseman Todd Frazier and Latos couldn’t out-hustle him to the bag.

“This is the one that got it going,” Matheny said.

And it did get going. The Cardinals began the inning by going single, single, home run (Craig), home run (Yadier Molina), walk, single, single, sactrifice fly. Craig, who also had two singles in the game, almost had two home runs in one at-bat. Earlier in the count he lofted a fly ball down the left field line that swerved just foul. Then he smacked another Latos offering to straightaway center, clearing the fence an estimated 417 feet from home plate.

“I didn’t think it was going to be a home run,” Craig said of the first shot. “It just hooked.” On the genuine homer, he said, “I was just trying to get a sacrifice fly. I got a lot of it. I think it was a really big game to start the road trip. We got a victory in the first game against our main competition and that was important, especially when we went down at first .”

After doing the one-game-at-a-time song-and-dance all season, the Cardinals find it hard to talk about the philosophy changing, even if they are running out of time to catch Cincinnati.

“You can take it one game at a time, but put some extra importance on these games,” Craig said, sounding like Solomon of the diamond.

At this point in the season a year ago most baseball fans figured the Cardinals for being dead in the water. Against the odds they stampeded to the regular-season finish-line, squeezed past teams in the playoffs and as underdogs won the World Series. Such behavior builds a reserve of confidence and reliever Joe Kelly, who got the win Friday and struck out six in three innings, said the memories are fresh and the phrase “Let’s do it again” resonates with the Cardinals.

“Yeah,” he said of the prospect Cardinals Charge II, “why not?”