PHILADELPHIA -- That baseball's schedule makers blessed the St. Louis Cardinals with series against the Cubs and the Astros to conclude their regular season served to obscure just how impressive -- and how difficult -- their September surge past the Braves to the Wild Card actually had been.
Their final month's schedule hadn't entirely resembled the contents of a bakery's window display. In fact, of their 18 September wins, 10 came against teams that had started pitchers who ended up boasting ERAs of 3.83 of lower. In that span, they defeated Yovanni Gallardo (twice), Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Tim Hudson, pitchers who have among them won three Cy Young Awards and made 15 All-Star games.
The Cardinals in September faced four Phillies' starters, all of them except Cliff Lee. It was Lee -- the angular lefty who even after two disastrous World Series starts against the Giants last season still had a career postseason record of 7-2 and an ERA of 2.13 -- who they drew on Sunday night, in Game 2 of the NLDS. And it was Lee, after a madcap 5-4 Cardinals' win, who became the latest ace to end up a part of the Cardinals' growing collection of trophies.
The Cardinals won the game, in some measure, because of some crazy managerial alchemy that could only have been the work of Tony LaRussa. His night included the pulling of his best pitcher, starter Chris Carpenter -- starting on three days' rest -- in the third inning, which was just after Carpenter had seemed to settle down after allowing the Phillies to race out to a 4-0 second-inning lead. It included the decision to pinch-hit for Carpenter with Nick Punto, he of the career .652 OPS -- .664 in 22 at-bats against Lee -- with men on second and third and one out. Punto struck out swinging.
It included the criticizing of the strike zone of home plate umpire Jerry Meals on national television -- LaRussa suggested during an in-game interview Meals was giving Lee a more generous strike zone than Carpenter, a contention that PitchFX data confirmed as unfounded. ("It's not a great comment to make, but I was upset," he later explained.)
It included the use of six relief pitchers -- four in the eighth inning alone -- among them a man whose name nobody can pronounce (Marc Rzepczynski), another who has been on as many teams as there are letters in his name (Octavio Dotel) and another who will turn 42 years old in three weeks (Arthur Rhodes).
For good measure, LaRussa's night included the sending of Albert Pujols, his superstar whose injured heel has made it so he currently not so much runs as staggers, to second base on a ninth inning hit-and-run. He never made it, as Lance Berkman struck out and Pujols was, mercifully for him, gunned down. "We keep things real simple," said LaRussa after the game, without any apparent irony.
LaRussa's machinations seemed to work well enough (those six relievers allowed one hit and two baserunners over the final six innings), but the real key to the Cardinals' leveling of the series at 1-1 was elementary: they got to Lee. "Any time you give a starting pitcher a four-run lead in the first two innings, you're in a pretty good spot, and I squandered it away," said Lee. "You've got to give their hitters a ton of credit. They got a ton of hits."
In fact, the Cardinals got 12 of them off Lee, a total that had been mustered against him only once before in his career. All eight of the St. Louis's starting position players had at least one hit against him. "I take full responsibility," Lee says. "They got hits. They definitely earned it."
That barrage of hits, and the five runs they produced, was ultimately what turned a game that started off looking like a certain Phillies win into a loss. Now the Phillies know that they will be playing two games in St. Louis, the first on Tuesday at 5 p.m. "Hopefully, we can win those two and get it over with," Lee said.
The odds remain that Philadelphia will do just that, as it retains the significant upper hand in both pitching matchups: first Cole Hamels against Jaime Garcia, then Roy Oswalt against Edwin Jackson. Hamels and Oswalt, of course, would be the aces of many other teams. On Sunday, though, the Cardinals demonstrated they know the sure way to deal with any pitcher, whether he is an ace or not. All you have to do is get hits against him. It's as simple as that.