It goes without saying that it’s important to win the first game of a short playoff series.
But it was especially vital for the St. Louis Cardinals to take game one of their five-game set against the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs, happy just to get a wild card spot and advance past the Pittsburgh Pirates a season before they were expected to contend, have been playing free and easy lately. They were never really challenged in their one-game playoff against Pittsburgh and hadn’t yet felt any pressure in the post-season.
If they could have won the first game of the Cardinals series they might have become the snow ball rolling down hill that was impossible to stop.
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The Redbirds, who failed to score a run in their season-ending series against Atlanta, might have really started to press if they were shut down by Jon Lester and the Cubs bullpen.
But St. Louis rode an incredible start by John Lackey, 7 1/3 innings pitched with two hits allowed and a walk, until a pair of home runs by rookies Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty broke the game open late. The Cardinals bloodied Chicago’s nose for the first time in the post season and showed the Cubs that they’re up for a fight.
The Birds, who were criticized for playing the junior varsity squad after clinching amid concerns that it might be hard to regain their sense of urgency, played a very solid all around game.
Lackey was backed by a strong relief performance from Kevin Siegrist who struck out the two men he face. Trevor Rosenthal struck out the side in the ninth, although he couldn’t resist making things interesting by walking one hitter and giving up a hit to another to bring up Kris Bryant with two on and two out with slugger Anthony Rizzo chomping at the bit for a chance to tie the game.
Defensively, the Cardinals turned a couple of nice double plays, one hit to third baseman Matt Carpenter by Bryant and another to Mark Reynolds - who had only moments before entered the game as a defensive replacement at first base - who stepped on the bag and tossed the ball perfectly to shortstop Jhonny Peralta for a tag play.
Jason Heyward, who was pressed into service in centerfield because of Randal Grichuk’s elbow problem, made a nice diving catch early.
The Cardinals scored one run in the first and couldn’t do much with Lester. But they took some good at bats and eventually broke through against Lester in the bottom of the eighth with Pham’s homer, a walk drawn by Carpenter and a homer by Stephen Piscotty.
While much was made about the seemingly invincible Jake Arrieta before the series, the Cardinals could render the Chicago ace nearly irrelevant with a win in Game 2 Saturday at Busch Stadium.
If the Birds could win that game, with Jaime Garcia (10-6, 2.43) matched up against Kyle Hendricks (8-7, 3.95) they’d need to win only one of the remaining three games against Chicago to win the series. And Arrieta is likely only going to pitch in one of them.
Matt Carpenter is a career .600 hitter with a homer and three RBI against Hendricks. Matt Holliday is a .500 hitter with two homers and four runs batted in against him. Peralta is a .364 hitter with an RBI.
Cardinals Star of the Game: Lackey who had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning
Cardinals Play of the Game: The double play against Rizzo that killed a serious threat by the cubs to take the lead
Lowlight: Peralta was hitless in three at-bats with a strikeout. Despite a long layoff between the end of the season Sunday and the start of the playoffs on Friday, his bat still seems slow.