HOUSTON — Three-time All-Star Chris Carpenter stepped up to the challenge Wednesday night in the final regular-season game knowing his team needed him more than ever in order to help keep their possible National League Wild Card hopes alive.
Carpenter (11-9) tossed a stellar complete-game, two-hit shutout, which included 11 strikeouts and just one walk, to lead the St. Louis Cardinals to an 8-0 win over the Houston Astros.
It marked the 15th career shutout for Carpenter, who recently agreed to a two-year, $21 million contract extension with the Cardinals.
“It seemed like Carpenter took advantage of the Astros young and aggressive team,” St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa said. “He was sharp. He could have pitched against a veteran club. With all his different pitches, he was a surgeon … he just cut them up.”
Astros skipper Brad Mills agreed.
“There’s no doubt,” he said. “Carpenter’s slider, changeup and curveball were as good as you could get. Our guys had a tough time distinguishing the slider staying in the zone and the curveball coming in the zone and then going out of the zone. You saw a lot of swings and misses, as well as guys fouling off a lot of balls. By doing that, Carpenter was able to spot the fastball.”
After doing their part and taking a temporary half-game lead in the NL Wild Card race, St. Louis hung around the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park looking for some help from the Philadelphia Phillies, hoping they would officially eliminate the Atlanta Braves.
As the Phillies and Braves’ matchup progressed into the 13th inning tied at 3-3, St. Louis was on the verge of heading to the airport, until two-time All-Star Hunter Pence came through with the go-ahead RBI single to lift Philadelphia to a one-run victory.
Ultimately, the celebration began for St. Louis, who escaped having to play a one-game playoff against the Braves on Thursday.
Instead, the Cardinals will open the 2011 NLDS on Saturday evening, with right-hander Kyle Lohse scheduled to get the start versus two-time Cy Young Award winner and eight-time All-Star right-hander Roy Halladay and the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Not bad for a team that trailed Atlanta by 10 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card race on Aug. 25, only to win 23 of their final 31 games.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, St. Louis overcame the second largest deficit (8 1/2 games on Sept. 5) in MLB history to make the postseason, with the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays taking the top spot by making up nine games to rally past Boston.
The Cardinals recorded five straight hits in the opening frame while facing Astros ace Brett Myers en route to a five-run inning.
Three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols and six-time All-Star Lance Berkman made it 2-0 with RBI singles apiece, while David Freese following with an RBI double, to give Carpenter a three-run lead.
After Myers struck out catcher Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker drove in a run with an infield single and Nick Punto added an RBI single.
“It was not the way we drew it up, with them jumping out to a big lead right away and us facing a tough pitcher,” Mills said. “Carpenter was on his game. Any time you’ve got a big lead like that, it’s tough to come back. It’s no secret they have a good offense.”
Carpenter helped himself out with the bat with an RBI single to right field off Myers in the top of the third to give St. Louis a 6-0 lead.
Freese led off the fifth with a double to deep right-center and eventually came around to score on Schumaker’s grounder to shortstop.
Myers (7-14) allowed seven runs (six earned) on 10 hits with one walk and three strikeouts over 5 innings to earn his 14th loss.
“We capitalized,” LaRussa said. “We had a crooked number in the first. Early on, he [Myers] didn’t have good pitches or luck.”
The veteran right-hander entered Wednesday’s game with a 4-0 record and 1.23 ERA over 29 1/3 innings in the month of September.
Wilton Lopez, Lucas Harrell and Aneury Rodriguez each tossed a scoreless inning of relief for Houston before right-hander Lance Pendleton yielded a solo home run to Allen Craig in the ninth.
Craig went 4-for-9 with two homers, five RBI and five runs scored in the three-game series to help St. Louis clinch the NL Wild Card.
With the Astros, they finish 2011 with the worst record (56-106) in Major League Baseball — the most losses in franchise history.
Houston will head to Spring Training next season with several open jobs, as the organization continues to transition toward the youth movement.
“There’s no doubt we’ll start looking ahead,” Mills said. “With the club that we have and the work we have done, it’s a work in progress. It’s going to continue being that. I think we were able to see a lot of progress in guys. We had a lot of turnover this year, both position and pitcher wise. You’re going to have some stuff not go quite how you like, but at the same time, I thought we were doing that extra work. The coaches did an outstanding job. I thought the players did a good job coming out each day and getting that work in. They did what they needed to do.
“That was big.”
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