ATLANTA, GA - Michael Bourn #24 of the Atlanta Braves reacts after striking out to end the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Braves had to face Cliff Lee. The Cardinals had to face the Houston Astros. If the Astros still played in the Astrodome, they'd incite the crowd to chant, "Stop them from playing! Stop them from playing!"
Cliff Lee pitched like Cliff Lee, and the Braves couldn't keep up. The perennial Cy Young candidate threw six strong innings, striking out six without walking a batter. The Braves lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 4-2, and they were in danger of slipping into a tie for the Wild Card lead.
The Cardinals couldn't take advantage, though, squandering big chances in the late innings after coming from behind in the eighth inning. The Astros held on, and then broke through with a bloop and two misplayed bunts in the tenth inning, winning 5-4 to crush the Cardinals' hopes of catching the Braves on Monday night.
In the Braves/Phillies game at Turner Field, Atlanta scored first on a Chipper Jones solo shot to left-center in the first inning. The homer reminded the world that Jones still has some juice left in the ol' bat, and getting on the board first against the normally untouchable Lee gave the Braves a lift. Back-to-back doubles from Matt Diaz and Alex Gonzalez in the second inning gave the Braves a 2-0 lead.
Braves rookie starter Randall Delgado pitched well enough, allowing two runs. The first was on a Placido Polanco RBI single in the fourth, and the second was on a Jimmy Rollins solo home run in the fifth. After just 82 pitches in five innings, though, Delgado was pulled, and the once-untouchable Braves bullpen faltered again.
Cristhian Martinez came in to pitch the sixth inning, and allowed a one-out triple to Shane Victorino. Manager Fredi Gonzalez played match-up games early, bringing in Eric O'Flaherty to face Raul Ibanez, who chopped a ball through the right side of the infield to give the Phillies a 3-2 lead they wouldn't relinquish. Ibanez had another RBI single in the eighth.
The Braves had a threat in the bottom of the eighth, with runners at first and second with one out against Brad Lidge, but Chipper Jones grounded into a double play to end the threat. The double play reminded the world that Jones isn't as quick as he used to be with the ol' bat, and the swift end to the rally deflated the Braves. Ryan Madson pitched a scoreless ninth for the save.
In Houston, the Cardinals got on the board first, with Matt Holliday singling home David Freese in the top of the third, though the score remained 1-0 when J.D. Martinez cut down Albert Pujols at the plate by approximately 89 feet on the play.
The Astros got their first run on a safety squeeze from Wandy Rodriguez in the third inning which was promptly followed by an RBI double from Jason Bourgeois, giving Houston a 2-1 lead. In the fourth, Matt Downs -- who somehow couldn't find regular playing time on the Astros despite a .277/.349/.508 line in 195 at-bats this year -- hit a two run home run off starter Jaime Garcia to put the Astros up 4-1.
St. Louis chipped away with a run in the fifth, and came back to tie the game in the eighth with an Albert Pujols single, a Matt Holliday walk, and a two-run double from Lance Berkman. After a walk to Molina, and still no outs, the Cardinals were well-positioned to go ahead, but both runners were left on base, and the score remained tied until the 10th.
In the 10th, Brian Bogusevic led off with a bloop double down the line for the Astros. Bourgeois followed with a bunt down the third-base line that Octavio Dotel flubbed, putting runners at first and third with no outs. Angel Sanchez then laid down the second safety squeeze for the Astros on the night, with this one winning the game for the Astros.
That's the downside to waiting so long to make a move in a race: a team has to play perfect baseball, and they also have to avoid baseball weirdness. The Cardinals lost on Monday because of a bloop and two bunts. Now they have two games left to make up a one-game deficit, when they could have been tied with a well-timed single in the late innings.
On June 19th, the Atlanta Braves were tied for the Wild Card with both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers. For over three months after that, they had sole possession of the Wild Card lead. On September 1st, they had a 9½-game lead on the Cardinals in the Wild Card. Tonight, the lead was almost squandered. But there was a reprieve, and the Braves cling to their lead now with two games left in the season.