The game didn't disappoint. There were ups and downs on both sides. My friend Chris, who is a Cards fan, and I kept going back and forth razzing each other and making defeatist, cynical comments about our own teams. Fans were nicely intermixed at Busch Stadium. Plenty road-trippers and displaced Cubs fans could be seen in blue and white and pinstripes, and of course, the Cardinal faithful packed it in with their annoying red shirts.
The near 50,000 fans that filled the seats and left little room in the Standing Room Only sections of the steamy stadium almost got short-changed, though. With Carpenter and Zambrano on the mound the game just flew by. The two incredible pitchers put on a show as they dueled it out matching each other for two nine-inning one-run performances. Two hours barely rolled by before we were looking at extra innings.
But they weren't short-changed. The game had some surprising excitement for a pitchers duel. From Todd Walker wrapping into two inning-ending double plays with a runner on third base to recent rookie sensation John Rodriguez going yard in his first at-bat against Zambrano. And both clubs brought their gloves. Rodriguez made a phenomenal catch in the outfield and Jeromy Burnitz matched him stealing an Albert Pujols homer from clearing the yellow line.
One of the funnier things about these Cubs vs. Cards games is how fans can get distracted if they're not paying attention. When taking a bathroom break or grabbing some nachos at the concessions, fans have to run to the monitors to see what's going on at the hint that they're missing some key action. The roar of the crowd doesn't necessarily indicate something good for the Cards at Busch Stadium. With so many pesky Cubs fans in the crowd stirring the pot, they tend to be just as loud as their hosting counterparts. And probably most entertaining is when a fan from either team can be spotted clapping for the opposing team. Occasionally fans can get lost in conversation and lose their concentration and just react to a play and cheer with the other noise around them. You've probably done it yourself. And by the time you realized what you were doing and tried to cover it up, your buddies noticed and started giving you the business.
All funny things aside, as the game reached the ninth inning, Busch stadium came alive. Carpenter and the Cards held the Cubs in check in the top half of the inning. As the bottom half arrived, the Cards brought the top of the order to the plate against Zambrano. Two quick outs and the dream match-up was created: Pujols vs. Zambrano with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game at Busch Stadium. Fans from both sides made as much noise as possible with what was left of their voices. The atmosphere was electric. This was what baseball was all about. And Zambrano won this battle getting Pujols to bounce out to Neifi Perez. On to extras!
With extra innings, the Zambrano vs. Carpenter duel was no more. The game was now in the hands of the bullpen. Jason Isringhausen came in for the tenth. Though he bent about as much as a reliever could bend, he did not break and got Aramis Ramirez to end a bases loaded threat with a ground out to David Eckstein.
Glendon Rusch came on to pitch the bottom half of the tenth for the Cubs and kept his solid streak against the Cards going strong. But after the Cubs were turned away again in the eleventh, Baker brought in Sergio Mitre. Unable to control myself, I stood up in the cheap seats yelling for him to bring someone else in. This was not a good situation for Mitre, and the sight of the clutch-hitting John Mabry coming to the plate dropped me back into my seat as I knew the end was coming. Mabry launched a ball deep to an area of the ballpark where I was blind to the action. As the umpire signaled a safe ball, Mabry hustled into third base for a leadoff triple.
After Hector Luna came in to run for Mabry, So Taguchi smacked a ball up the middle. But Perez made a nice snag, keeping Luna at third, before tossing the ball over to Derrek Lee for the first out of the inning.
David Eckstein then walked to the plate. As Michael Barrett got into his crouched position I leapt to my feet once again yelling, "Walk him! What are you doing? Walk him!" Eckstein might very well be the best contact hitter in the National League. With a runner on third and less than two outs, there might not be a better Cardinal to have come to the plate. So what was Baker thinking? I honestly don't know. I can say that almost everyone within ten seats from me, Cubs and Cards fans alike, knew the suicide squeeze was coming. Why not set up the double play opportunity by walking Eckstein? Especially with a rookie, John Rodriguez, on-deck. Alas, La Russa took it to Dusty Baker and the Cubs. Luna broke for home on a 1-1 count, and Eckstein laid down a perfect suicide squeeze bunt for the win.
Cardinal fans broke into hysteria, celebrating the win and laughing at the unfortunate plight of the Cub fans. Dejected and disgusted with the outcome, especially one that seemed to be available in script form to everyone but Baker, we headed out to join the masses.
After a couple stops along the way to gather with friends and deal with some good ribbing at the hands of Cardinal fans, we headed home. Nearing the parking garage a Cardinal fan was standing off to the side by himself. The fifty-something year old fan had a strange smile on his face. As we passed the man and he left our line of sight, he commented aloud, "How ‘bout that squeeze play?" Not knowing that I noticed him standing off to the side holding what appeared to be his wife's purse, I jabbed back at him with, "At least I'm not the one holding a purse right now." He had no comeback.
And so the ribbing between fans of the greatest, healthiest baseball rivalry goes on. There's still two more games this weekend, and there will be plenty more exciting plays and ribbing between fans and players. Matt Morris takes on Jerome Williams for game two, and the series ends on ESPN Sunday night with Jeff Suppan pitching against Mark Prior. Will the Sunday game be a chance for a Cardinal sweep? Will Prior and the Cubs be looking to take the rubber match of the series? Regardless of the situation, it's gonna be a great weekend for baseball in St. Louis.
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