April 8 – Cardinals 10, Astros 1

The St. Louis Cardinals took their first series of the season, winning Sunday afternoon's rubber match over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.

The St. Louis Cardinals (2-4) and Kip Wells played as effectively as any time through their first six games of the young 2007 season in a 10-1 rout of the Houston Astros (1-5) Sunday at Minute Maid Park. Leading the way for the Cardinals was basically their entire starting lineup and starting pitcher Kip Wells.

Every starter reached base at least once, while only second baseman Adam Kennedy failed to earn a base hit. The game could serve as a turning point for the early going of the season, where the Cardinals have struggled mightily at the plate and with relief pitching - but Sunday's highlights varied from a sterling performance on the mound by Kip Wells (seven innings pitched, seven strikeouts, one hit allowed) to first baseman Albert Pujols' first home run of the year.

The Cardinals appeared to carry over all their offensive woes in the first inning of this rubber match with the Astros, as David Ecsktein flied out, Chris Duncan struck out looking, and Pujols struck out swinging. Then, in the second inning, center fielder Jim Edmonds found himself on first with a single. Right fielder Preston Wilson followed with his own base hit, and catcher Yadier Molina's groundout in the next at-bat allowed Edmonds to move to third. Astros starting pitcher Jason Jennings lost control of a pitch thrown to Wells two at-bats later (after Adam Kennedy was intentionally walked), letting Edmonds score on the wild pitch.

By the time the third inning had arrived, Wells had faced eight batters, two above the minimum. He had given up his only hit of his eventual seven-inning appearance to shortstop Mark Loretta - a bloop single to right field. Wells had a one-run lead, but he was about to gain a little bit of comfort.

Leading off the third inning, Eckstein lined out to the pitcher (a jumping catch by Jennings), but left fielder Chris Duncan drew a walk. This brought up Pujols, who has a knack for hitting the ball well on Easter Sunday in recent seasons (see last year's three home-run, game-winning performance on Easter). The Cardinals' slugger took a Jennings pitch deep to left field for his first home run of the season, and his first hit since early in the three-game homestand against the Mets.

Starting with the final out of the second inning, Wells retired sixteen batters in a row - including four strikeouts. He allowed a total of three baserunners in his seven innings of work; one single, one hit by pitch, and one walk. Wells dominated the Houston lineup by changing speeds, using his fastball with a lot of late movement, and working in a slider that was basically unhittable by the Astros' batters.

The Cardinals' offense had been the talk of the baseball world through their first five games of the season when it comes to disappointments, but in this Easter Sunday game in Houston, the Cardinals' bats suddenly found new life. In the top of the eighth inning, Duncan and Pujols singled to right field, allowing third baseman Scott Rolen to break out of his own personal slump with an RBI base hit. After Edmonds and Wilson were retired, Molina hit a single, scoring Pujols from third. Luckily for St. Louis and manager Tony La Russa, Rolen wasn't just breaking out of his slump - he was headed for an excellent performance at the plate.

In the top of the ninth inning, with the Cardinals leading 5-0, Houston's own Brad Lidge entered the game to try and keep the Cardinals from scoring any more runs. With one out (a Skip Schumaker ground out), Eckstein found himself on first with an infield single. So Taguchi then walked, pushing Eckstein to second base.

The next at-bat had the most suspense ever seen in a 5-0 contest only six games into the season - it was Lidge pitching to Pujols. Coincidentally, after Pujols' monster home run in the 2005 NLCS against the Astros to prolong Houston's trip to the World Series came off Lidge, the closer has struggled mightily. A boost of confidence would come to Lidge if he would get Pujols out, and it seemed like he was able to do just that - but Loretta booted the ground ball, allowing Pujols to reach first on the error and all other base runners to advance a base.

With the bases loaded and one out, Rolen came up to the plate yet again, looking to add to his hitting totals of the afternoon. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Rolen put a Lidge pitch in the gap in left field for a bases-clearing double. The Cardinals, now up 8-0, were not finished yet. Jim Edmonds grounded out in the next at-bat, and it looked as if Lidge would finish the inning after all - but after intentionally walking pinch hitter Scott Spiezio, Molina knocked a double to deep center field that brought home both Rolen and Spiezio to make the margin 10-0.

The Cardinals received one perfect inning of work from reliever Ryan Franklin, but once again reliever Josh Hancock failed to retire all his batters during his ninth inning appearance. He walked third baseman Morgan Ensberg and left fielder Carlos Lee and then promptly gave up a double to right fielder Luke Scott, scoring Ensberg and ending the Cardinals' hopes of a shutout. Shortstop Mark Loretta grounded out to end the game as the Cardinals won their first series of the season, taking two of three from the Astros.

Game Notes:

-The Cardinals had only scored seven total runs through their first five games before their ten-run outburst on Sunday.

-Did anyone notice that sound the ball made off the bat of Pujols on his home run? That honestly was the loudest bat-on-ball sound I have ever heard. It was worth a second look - Pujols really got a hold of that one. This game could be a turnaround for his season, as he went 2-for-5 with two RBIs and three runs scored - a very good performance.

-After going 0-for-18 Saturday, the Cardinals #1 through #5 hitters were a combined 7-for-22 with one home run, two walks, seven runs scored, and six RBIs. The rest of the starting lineup went 6-for-16 with three RBIs and one walk.

-Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, Kip Wells, and Scott Rolen could all earn player of the game honors. Molina had a great performance - helping Wells make the right decisions on the mound, pulling off his part of a strike 'em out-throw 'em out play, and going 3-for-5 at the plate with three RBIs. Pujols and Rolen may have finally broken out of their respective slumps, as well. As for Wells, his pitching performance may not go as noticed in a game like Sunday's when the team is able to put up ten runs. He was stellar, giving up only one hit. Wells should play a key part for this team down the stretch, but in even his first start against the Mets, he looked impressive.

-With Chris Carpenter heading to get tests done on his ailing right elbow (worst case scenario he could be out for the whole season, best case scenario he'd back in a few starts), the Cardinals needed a great pitching performance out of someone else in the rotation, and now Braden Looper, Adam Wainwright, and Kip Wells have done just that. I have heard rumors that Blake Hawksworth could be the Cardinals choice to replace Carpenter in the rotation until his return (whenever that may be).

-The biggest question surrounding this game comes with Josh Hancock. He has not pitched well at all this season in any of his appearances, allowing two home runs to the Mets in his first chance on the mound. The Cardinals seem to have a viable option in Ryan Franklin for their setup man, as he has done a good job so far, pitching a total of 1.2 innings without allowing a hit or a run. His stuff has looked good and he might just be what Dave Duncan is seeking.

-The Cardinals now head to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates. The Monday start will go to Looper once again, as he takes on Ian Snell of the Pirates. If the Cardinals carry over their offensive outburst to Pittsburgh, it could be a fun series for St. Louis fans.

Brady Holzhauer can be reached via email at sportswriter5@gmail.com.

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