I don't know what led up to the ninth inning of the St. Louis Cardinals game against the Cincinnati Reds Monday night, and it clearly didn't matter. The entire story, or at least the only part worth re-telling, unfolded in the ninth inning.
I met up with some people at a local St. Louis establishment when the ninth inning was just getting under way. We happened to be the first people to arrive from our party. The score was 9-3 in favor of the Reds. It was clear that Chris Carpenter must not have had his best stuff and that Eric Milton, the Reds' starter, kept the struggling Cards offense at bay.
A few people joining the party walked in soon after I got there, looked at the giant flat screen TV, and shook their heads. I blurted out, "That offense is still struggling." They just shook their heads muttering some four-letter words under their breath about this Cub fan who was giving them the business. Little did I know that I would be the one shaking my head in the end.
As a few more arrived crowding the tables, David Weathers was squirming on the mound. With one out, he loaded the bases. Fans in the bar perked up with a little bit of hope as they saw the local hero, Albert Pujols, come to the plate. I slouched with that nervous feeling of "here we go again", but I was fairly confident knowing that all the Reds needed to do was get two more outs. Even if Albert hit a grand slam, it wouldn't be enough to win. With that thought, Albert slapped a grounder to the left side. As the Reds tried to turn the game-ending double play, I did my quiet play-by-play under my breath: "To second for one and to first for... ugh! Casey dropped the ball. He's safe. Come on! You gotta make that play! You gotta scoop that ball!" The relay throw to Casey on the turn was wide and low. As Casey stretched, he couldn't pick the one-hopper off the dirt. It was a tough play, but definitely reasonable for a big league first baseman. Albert was safe. The game was now 9-4 in favor of the Reds, but momentum just swung with one of those ominous late-inning turns.
Still not completely confident in the Cards' ability to pull out the comeback win, some fans and I commented about how shocked we were two weeks ago when Albert hit into a game-ending double play with the tying run on third. That clutch Cardinal hitting from 2004 just hasn't been there in 2005. This should have been a similar ending to that game at Busch, but Casey's inability to make the big play left the door open just a crack for someone else to step up and be the hero.
With two outs, a five-run lead, and runners on first and third, the Reds brought on Danny Graves for the save. It seems like Graves tends to get a lot of three-run leads to protect, which he often escapes with a one-run save and runners left in scoring position. This was a five-run lead, but with inheriting two runners, it qualified as a save opportunity.
Jim Edmonds stepped to the plate. Here I was thinking: "Why didn't the Reds go with the lefty vs. lefty match up? As a manager, I guess you have to assume that even if Edmonds hits a homer, the Reds are still up a run with a righty coming to the plate. And if the worst-case scenario does unfold, you want your closer on the mound to finish out the one-run game, right? Or is a homer not the worst thing? Is a late-inning homer a rally-killer that clears the bases, relieves the pressure, and lets the relief pitcher go back to the windup?"
Before I could even finish my thoughts, Graves served Edmonds a hanging curve ball that looked like it was heading to the plate on a silver platter in slow motion. Edmonds' big uppercut swing busted open that cracked door and launched the ball into orbit before it finally landed in the right field bleachers. An even bigger crowd that had joined us leapt to their feet celebrating. I just shook my head, thinking: "Here we go again. So much for that struggling offense I commented on earlier, huh?"
But wait a minute. This is a typical Danny Graves save, right? So what if Edmonds just hit a dinger. Graves only needs one out for the save. He's only been charged with one run. The bases are empty, and the big Cardinal bats are now done for the inning. Graves will escape after making the game interesting, and he'll still get his save and the Reds their win, right?
Former Cub Mark Grudzielanek stood in against Graves with the bases empty. Though I'm a big fan of Grudzi, I was quietly hoping this would all come to an end with his at-bat. As he hit a fairly hard grounder to first, I thought: "That's it. Game over." But Sean Casey booted the ball into the stands. Grudzielanek moved up to second on the error - I didn't know what the official scoring was at the time, but that's at least how I would have scored it. The game should have been over, but the tying run was now on second base.
Man, oh, man! You've got to be kidding me! The Reds had two chances to clinch the win, but the Cards still have life. Here we go again!
John Mabry then walked to the plate. About eleven days ago, the Cardinal outfielder who refuses to wear batting gloves stood in the box in the ninth inning with two outs representing the tying run against the Cubs. He lifted a deep, heart-palpitating fly to center that was about three feet short from destroying my evening at Busch Stadium. Though he fell just shy from being the hero that night, could this be the time the hard-working Cardinal comes through for his club?
And before those thoughts could be finished, Graves pulled out the platter that Edmonds must have graciously given back and served up another meatball. This time it was a lazy fastball. It started middle half and was tailing outside, but never really got the get-up-and-go it needed to snake outside the zone. Mabry appeared to get all of it as he lifted the ball to center field. Off the bat it was tough to tell if it would be another track-power, game-ending out, or if this one would carry out of the park sending the Cards fans into hysteria. Hysteria it was. Griffey ran out of room as the ball bounced off the grass beyond the center field fence. Fans in the bar leapt to their feet high-fiving each other. Players in the dugout ran up the steps to celebrate. I just sat quietly in my seat clinging to the slim hopes I had resting in the Reds' last raps. After entering the ninth inning down 9-3, the Cards were now up 10-9.
Booed by the remaining local fans, Graves stayed out there. Though two more runners reached base, one on another Casey dropped scoop, the inning finally ended. We just witnessed one of the best late-inning comebacks in years, but would Julian Tavarez and the Cards be able to hold it?
The Reds and Cards have had some storybook games the past two years. Though the rivalry is nothing like that of the Cards and Cubs, the Redbirds' games against the Reds have been thrilling to say the least. Two years ago, it seemed like the Cards could not hold a lead against the comeback Reds. Last season, the Cards returned the favor beating Graves time and time again. It looked like this year could be a continuation from last season, unless the Reds could find a way to return the favor in the bottom half of the ninth.
Tavarez made things interesting giving up a leadoff single to Joe Randa. Rich Aurilia followed with an attempted sacrifice bunt, but Yadier Molina fired to second to barely get the forceout. Cardinal fans gasped for air as Molina made the risky throw and then sighed with relief when the umpire called the out. They gasped again as Tavarez plunked the next batter, Jason LaRue, right between the shoulder blades putting the potential winning run on-base. Austin Kearns, who isn't unfamiliar to late-inning dramatics, stood in to be the hero, but Tavarez escaped with a slow grounder up the middle, which the Cards turned for an easy 6-3 double-play. The Cards pulled out an improbable win. Casey and Graves were the night's goats. Edmonds and Mabry were the heroes.
When it was all over I just sat in my chair continuing to shake my head. Though I wasn't all that surprised, the comeback was pretty darn remarkable. As the Cards fans celebrated around me, I sank further in my chair as I read a headline about Kerry Wood being sidelined for at least three weeks. Ugh! Here we go again!
A funny epilogue worth telling... When I got to work the next day, two friends were complaining about the Cards woes as of late. I immediately could tell they missed out on the exciting conclusion to the game the night before. As I recapped the ninth inning to them, they grinded their teeth in disgust with themselves as it had been some time since they were burned by turning the game off early.
This poses a discussion question for you to ponder on the Scout.com message board and over lunch with your friends: Do you ever turn the game off before the final out? If so, what memorable comeback or loss has been your biggest regret?
Pete Khazen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.