It took a little more than seven innings, but the Atlanta Braves (10-10) made the Cardinals pitching staff pay dearly for their mistakes.
Down a run in the eighth inning with two outs, the Braves loaded the bases when St. Louis (14-7) reliever Kyle McClellan (1-1) walked right fielder Jeff Francoeur — McClellan’s third walk of the inning. Matt Diaz worked the count full, before delievering the decisive blow to a Cardinals’ pitching staff the surrendered seven free passes on the night.
The left fielder sent a sharp ground ball past a diving Khalil Greene into center field to score both Omar Infante and Chipper Jones. To that point, Atlanta hitters were just 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in the game and 1-for-12 in the series.
Mike Gonzalez closed out the comeback victory in the ninth, when he struck out Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick in order to notch his third save of the season.
Through the better part of the evening, Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse kept Atlanta hitters off the scoreboard. The right-hander tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just four hits while striking out six.
The Braves managed to get a runner into scoring position in each of the first three innings — aided by Lohse’s four walks — but failed to push a run across. Casey Kotchman ended scoring chances in both the first and thirds innings when he grounded into double plays. Greg Norton was also robbed of an extra-base hit that would have scored Jordan Schafer from first in the seventh inning on a spectacular leaping catch by St. Louis center fielder Rick Ankiel.
The Cardinals orginally grabbed the lead in the first inning off Atlanta starter Jo-Jo Reyes, who threw, arguably, the best game of his career. Yadier Molina connected on a two-out RBI single that scored Rasmus.
From there, Reyes was flawless — at one point setting down 13 straight batters before finishing the night retiring 15 of the last 16 Cardinals. He was done after seven innings, but gave up just three hits, one run and one walk while striking out seven on 92 pitches.
Peter Moylan (1-1) threw a perfect eighth inning to pick up the win.
In the series finale on Wednesday, Atlanta will Cardinals at 7:05 p.m. Javier Vazquez is the scheduled starter for Atlanta.
– Jo-Jo was absolutely outstanding. Coming into tonight, the southpaw was 0-8 in his last eight outings but looked like a different pitcher. He trusted both his fastball and his changeup and had excellent command of the strike zone. The only downfall was that Atlanta hitters failed to give him any run support (The Braves average a little more than a run when Reyes is on the mound). Let’s hope this success continues for Jo-Jo.
– Hats off to Matty D for working the count, waiting for his pitch and coming through in the clutch. It’s been quite a while since the Braves have seen a timely hit.
– Quick stat — In the first 20 games of the 2009 season, Atlanta has scored three runs or less ten times. That has to quickly improve, because this stellar starting pitching won’t last forever.
– The Cardinals, quite obviously, don’t want Chipper to beat them. Tonight he didn’t have an official plate appearance. That’s only because he walked four times, which included a free pass in the decisive eighth inning.
– Great defense all around tonight. We mentioned Ankiel’s catch, but we also have to point out Card’s second baseman Brendan Ryan who had a couple incredible plays — including a breath-taking dive to his left that robbed Jo-Jo of a hit. For the Braves, Infante had a couple dazzlers at second including a conversion of a crucial double-play.
– Second baseman Kelly Johnson had the night off amid a 4-for-39 slump over his last 11 games. Let’s hope the rest works in his favor.