Commentary

Cardinals again find a way to come back

St. Louis beat odds to get in the playoffs, then defied them again by beating Cliff Lee

Updated: October 4, 2011, 8:43 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Is there anything in life that's safer than handing Cliff Lee a four-run lead in a huge October baseball game?

"Sure," said his teammate, Hunter Pence. "Handing Cliff a six-run lead."

OK, good point. But it was "only" a four-run lead that the winningest team in baseball handed its resident Mr. October on Sunday night, in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. In the second inning, no less.

And if you've studied your Life and Times of Cliff Lee Handbook, you know the man on the mound just about NEVER loses these kinds of games.

Until this one, anyway.

The facts in baseball never guarantee you anything, of course. But the facts told quite a story in this case.

Until Sunday night, that man, Clifton Phifer Lee, was an insane 94-1 in his career when his team gave him a four-run lead (or more) in either the regular season (87-1) or postseason (7-0). But it turned out that the team he was facing -- the back-from-the-crypt St. Louis Cardinals -- wasn't interested in any history lessons.

Other than the one it was about to administer, that is.

You could understand why stuff like that wouldn't impress a team that was once 10½ games out in the wild-card scramble a mere 5½ weeks ago. So the next thing Lee and the supposedly unstoppable Philadelphia Phillies knew, the Cardinals were giving them a firsthand lesson in how these pesky underdogs from St. Louis got themselves into this Octoberfest in the first place.

"This is basically what we've been doing for the last month or so," Cardinals second baseman Ryan Theriot said after his team had finished stampeding from behind to beat the Phillies 5-4, evening this NLDS at a game apiece.

"We've got guys who can hit," Theriot said. "And we've got a team that can score runs. And we've got a team that knows, when we get down, there's no reason to panic. Just keep doing what we've been doing."

Nevertheless, the Cardinals were well aware that getting themselves into a mess like this against a pitcher like Lee was a real, real bad idea.

They might not have known about that 94-1 stat. But they did know the guy they were facing had been on this October stage before -- and had chewed through lineups every bit as good as theirs. So they understood this was, well, trouble.

"We know who he is, how he pitches, the team he pitches in front of," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, between critiques of plate ump Jerry Meals' hard-to-fathom strike zone. "But we keep things real simple. We just are going to play nine [innings], come hell or high water."

The waters never rose high enough to get in the way of that rallying cry, despite some fairly impressive drizzle dropping out of the clouds late in the game. But the way La Russa's own ace, Chris Carpenter, pitched in his first start ever on short rest? That came awfully close to falling under the managerial definition of hellacious.

[+] EnlargeChris Carpenter
AP Photo/Matt SlocumChris Carpenter's night did not start well. But at least the Cardinals' night did.

Carpenter kicked off his evening by going double-walk-walk to the first three hitters he faced, without a whole lot of strikes mixed in there anyplace. And all that did was load the bases, with nobody out in the first inning, for Ryan Howard -- a one-time Cardinals fan from Missouri who had spent the last 6½ years pretty much terrorizing his once-beloved hometown team.

"Let me tell you something," Carpenter would mutter long afterward. "Walking the bases loaded and having to face Ryan Howard with the bases loaded -- that's not exactly how you draw up the game plan in the pitchers' meeting."

And for good reason. Howard would end up drilling a two-run single off Carpenter's shoe, to kick off a three-run eruption in the first inning. And that should have told us right there that this series wasn't going to follow anybody's idea of a predictable script.

One night after Roy Halladay served up his first three-run first-inning homer in five years, his old buddy Carpenter trumped that shocker -- by giving up three runs in the first inning for the first time in any of his last 174 regular-season starts, dating back to July 30, 2004.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the most consecutive starts without coughing up three or more runs in the first by ANY pitcher in the live-ball era. Ever.

But amazingly, this was the second time in that span that Carpenter had done it in the postseason. The Mets also stunned him with three runs in the first back in Game 2 of the 2006 NLCS. Not that Carpenter recalled that at all.

"No, not at all," he deadpanned. "You mean the one where [Jose] Reyes hit that home run? I don't remember that. Slider down and away? I don't remember that."

But what he does remember is how that 2006 postseason turned out. His team has a World Series trophy sitting around the office that can help jog his memory any time he forgets, too.

"I do remember I pitched like crap in both games against the Mets, and we ended up winning the World Series," he said. "So I'll be happy to pitch like crap all the time if we end up winning again."

In other words, he'd had some experience with crappiness that turned out just fine -- even before last night. But he was still trying to figure out exactly what happened to him in those first two innings, when he gave up four runs, let seven of the first 12 hitters reach base and needed as many pitches (23) just to get one out as it took Game 1 starter Kyle Lohse to get through three whole innings the night before.

Theriot And we've got a team that knows, when we get down, there's no reason to panic. Just keep doing what we've been doing.

-- Cardinals second baseman Ryan Theriot

His manager's theory -- that Meals had "two different strike zones," one for Lee, one for Carpenter -- wasn't a hypothesis Carpenter had any interest in embracing. And he wasn't real fond of everybody else's theory -- that he wasn't used to pitching on short rest, either.

"I physically felt great -- shoulder, elbow, body," he said. "Mechanically, I wasn't as sharp as I'd like. And mentally, if I'm being honest with you, I wasn't as sharp as I'd like. I wasn't locating. That's a lack of concentration. … Walking Hunter Pence [in the first inning], that's inexcusable."

Well, whatever it was, he was gone by the end of the third inning. And by then, the largest throng in the history of in Citizens Bank Park appeared to be loudly -- very loudly -- already planning its next World Series parade. But little did those 46,575 folks know that the Cardinals were actually enjoying this madness.

Asked how tough it must have seemed to get this game settled down at that point, Theriot chuckled: "I didn't WANT to settle it down. I like it. As a competitor, I feed off that emotion. And as a team, we enjoy it. It gets rowdy here. It's a great atmosphere. This place gets as crazy as any place in baseball, man. And we love that. It's a lot of fun."

But for the Cardinals, the fun was just beginning. First, they sprung a three-run rally on Lee in the fourth inning -- and would have tied the game right there if Raul Ibanez hadn't thrown out John Jay at the plate on Rafael Furcal's RBI single.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesCliff Lee usually doesn't give away leads. He did on Sunday in Game 2 against the Cardinals.

Then they tied the game in the sixth on Jay's two-out single -- and took the lead in the seventh, on Alan Craig's leadoff triple and what turned out to be a game-winning single by some guy named Albert Pujols.

It was the third time in Pujols' career he's had a go-ahead postseason RBI in the seventh inning or later. And you might recall the previous time he did that -- since it came on a game-winning, ninth-inning 2005 NLCS home run off Brad Lidge that might still be traveling.

And so, shockingly, it was Cardinals 5, Phillies 4. And the Cardinals' much-maligned bullpen took care of the rest, allowing just one hit -- and two baserunners total -- over the final six innings.

As all that unfolded, in the stands of a once-raucous ballpark, "you could hear a pin drop out there," the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins said. "And that's something you usually don't get at Citizens Bank Park."

But in the Cardinals' dugout, there was more than enough bedlam to make up for the silence everywhere else.

"Basically," Theriot said, "we were yelling and screaming like a bunch of idiots, pretty much. You ever been in a Little League dugout when it gets rowdy? That's what it was like."

And no wonder. Had the Cardinals gone down 2-0, they were looking at overwhelming odds of coming back in the series. Heading into this October, teams that won the first two games of a division series were 37-4 in those series. Yeah, 37-4. So to find themselves heading home 1-1 instead of 2-0? That," said Lance Berkman, "was huge."

But meanwhile, in the other clubhouse, the troops weren't feeling quite that jovial.

"We had a chance to get ourselves two games [up]," Rollins said. "And we gave a game back."

The pitcher who gave that lead back was a man who once was 7-0 in his postseason career, a man who entered this game with a 2.13 postseason ERA in 10 starts and a man whose 0.56 ERA since the start of August was the most microscopic in baseball. So Cliff Lee wasn't proud of what just happened. But he wasn't blaming any umpires for it, either.

"I take full responsibility," he said. "Any time you give a pitcher a four-run lead in the first two innings, he's in a pretty good spot. And that was the situation I was in, and somehow squandered it away."

Let's spell this out one last time. All the odds, all the numbers, were in his favor. You'd think, if you didn't know much about baseball, that a guy who was 94-1 in that situation was pretty much a lock. Wouldn't you? But baseball doesn't work that way. Not Sunday night. Not ever. That's the beauty of it all.

"Hmmm, 94-1, huh? I guess it's 94-2 now," Rollins said. "But you know, baseball isn't always in the numbers."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com