SAN FRANCISCO • Stuck on zero in the series and still seeking the unrelenting lineup they believe they can be this season, the Cardinals proved again Saturday whether an offense is slugging or struggling one thing is always true.
There is no substitute for good timing.
The Cardinals used 11 singles and capitalized on even the slimmest opportunities to escape their recent fog in San Francisco with a 6-3 victory Saturday at AT&T Park. To make a winner of righthander Shelby Miller in his second major-league start, the Cardinals scored four runs with two outs – including the tying run, the go-ahead run and all three RBIs provided by All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran.
“We scored with two outs and those are huge for any team,” said Beltran, who put the Cardinals ahead for good with a two-run, two-out single in the fifth inning. “If you’re capable of doing that, that’s a force. We understand that’s not going to happen all of the time. But there are a lot of guys in here who take pride in hitting in those situations.”
A day after Giants lefty Barry Zito held them scoreless to prolong their troubles with the Giants, the Cardinals scored six runs against a pitching staff that had allowed only seven total in its previous four games this season. Beltran’s two-out RBI single off Ryan Vogelsong in the first inning ended the Giants starting rotation’s run of 26 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run to start the season. It also gave the Cardinals their first run against the Giants in 21 innings, dating back to Game 6 of last fall’s National League championship series.
Pete Kozma contributed three hits to an offense that rewarded another rookie, top pitching prospect Miller, with the win. The righty pitched 5 1/3 innings and held the Giants to two runs on four hits to claim his first big-league victory as a starter. He also had a sacrifice bunt to help key the fifth-inning rally that tied the game on Matt Holliday’s two-out single and put the Cardinals ahead on Beltran’s second single of the game.
“We have one of the best lineups,” Miller said. “They’re going to put up runs.”
That’s the idea.
The Cardinals return the muscle behind an offense that scored the second-most runs in the National League last season and led the majors in on-base percentage. They got to their gaudy total of 765 runs last season – 4.7 a game – in large gulps and sudden gaps. The Cardinals held a three-games-to-one lead on the Giants in the NLCS before scoring once in the final three games of the best-of-seven series. That brownout was emblematic of a team that could go curiously quiet. While strong opposing pitchers were a main cause, the inconsistency was such that manager Mike Matheny spoke about ways to solve it this spring.
Too often bunts didn’t work. Too often runners weren’t moved over.
To correct those failings, the Cardinals spent time this spring training focusing on the art of execution. They sought ways to score when their power was unplugged. They held a bunt tournament. They crowned situational hitting champs. One winner was Beltran, who had two of the Cardinals’ four hits Saturday with two-outs and runners in scoring position.
The Cardinals invented their six runs against the Giants out of opportunity.
Matt Carpenter’s busted-bat infield single in the first inning gave the Cardinals their first baserunner, and a passed ball and wild pitch put him at third. Beltran’s busted-bat single off Vogelsong (0-1) brought Carpenter home for a 1-0 lead. Hunter Pence’s homer off Miller tied the game, and Pablo Sandoval put the Giants ahead 2-1 when he connected with Miller’s curve for an RBI single in the third inning. It was Sandoval’s glove that gave the Cardinals their chance to retake the lead in the fifth.
Miller’s bunt put Kozma in scoring position for Holliday to drive home as the tying run. Allen Craig followed with a hard grounder to the left side of the infield. Sandoval dove to cut off the grounder from reaching shortstop Brandon Crawford. That kept either from making the play, and brought Beltran up for his winning single in a victory requiring several broken bats, two bunts, one steal and 11 well-placed singles.
“When you’re having trouble and when you have a day like we had (Friday), any of them are good,” Matheny said. “I know how much people don’t like us laying down the bunt but that created a couple runs for us. That’s what we’re going to have to do when we’re not really banging the ball all over the place. We’re going to have to do the little things right. Two-out hits. Those are big. I thought we were very well-rounded.”
Miller (1-0) pitched 1 1/3 with that lead before a couple of walks in the sixth pushed Matheny to the Cardinals’ bullpen. The rookie said catcher Yadier Molina was “exaggerated” with his motions for Miller to put his breaking ball lower in the zone. He did for a strike out of Pence, but several key hits off him came when the off-speed pitches strayed up.
Lefty Randy Choate got Joaquin Arias to line into a double play to end the sixth and keep the inherited runners from scoring. Pitching the eighth in place of Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica allowed a home run and a double on back-to-back pitches to bring the tying run to the plate. He retired the next three batters to keep the Cardinals lead in place. Mitchell Boggs pitched a scoreless ninth for his first save as the team’s fill-in closer.
In between, the Cardinals added a run for cushion.
It came when Carpenter stung a single to score Shane Robinson, who had reached scoring position thanks to a bunt by Jon Jay. Whatever works. When it comes to offense, small-sample sizes rule at this time of the season.
Bigger truths develop later.
“This is just the beginning of the season,” Beltran said, adding an understated: “There are going to be days when we come through as a team. This was one of those days.”