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free clinic

when they roughed up carpenter on september 28 for six runs in six innings, the astros made hay on the first pitch. being obsessed with such things, i took note of the tendency at that time:

last night the astros, perhaps sensing weakness, went right after carpenter on the 1st pitch; of the 30 batters he faced, 20 saw a first-pitch strike, and 15 of them -- 75 percent -- swung the bat. if you read my treatise on first-pitch swinging sev'l weeks back, you know that percentage is off the charts. seven of the hack-aways put the ball in play, and four got base hits, a .571 average -- again, off the charts.
last night the 'stros were back at it. of the 31 houstons carp faced, 22 saw a strike to hit, and 17 swung the bat -- 77 percent. hit the ball plenty hard, too -- put it in play 11 times but made 9 outs, a .182 average.

some of the outs were pretty well hit, though, most notably the scorcher off lance berkman's bat in the top of the 3d that grud, eck, and pu corraled into a rally-killing double play -- an exemplary turn (and more of it in a moment). mike lamb's near-hr that sanders caught, leaping, in front of the wall was a first-pitch swing; so too that line drive by brad ausmus that walker caught while seated on the grass in short right. even ensberg's inning-ending comebacker in the top of the 1st was sharply hit and would have gotten through for an rbi single had carpenter's glove not got in the way.

i tend to defend the see-it-hack-it school when it's used in the right situations. but the astros overdid it last night, hacking too often and with not enough purpose, and as a result they cheated themselves out of a chance to test the cardinals' bullpen. carpenter was up to 60 pitches through four innings; with a little patience the astros could have burned him out before the 7th was over. instead they went down on just 6 pitches in the 5th inning and 10 pitches in the 6th, enabling carp to extend his stay. a 16-pitch seventh brought his total to 92 pitches; if it had been at 102 instead, la russa would probably have pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the inning. instead la russa was able to let carpenter bat for himself and return to the mound in the 8th, in which frame houston went down on only four pitches.

carpenter's velocity was back, but his curveball wasn't; he still isn't breaking the pitch off and only threw about 15 of them the entire game. for good reason -- they're floating in belt high. he's strictly a fastball-sinker guy now, which is why carp is no longer striking guys out and is pitching instead like -- dread thought -- mark mulder.

one at-bat in particular stands out to me: the walk to willy taveras in the 3d inning. it's not easy to walk willy taveras; only happened 20 times all season. carpenter had struck him out in the first and got ahead 0-2 in the 3d inning. he badly needed to finish him off; there were two on and one out, with berkman on deck. against the carp of midseason taveras wouldn't have stood a chance, but here he could sit on the fastball. carpenter threw eight in a row -- some of them cutters, all well located, but ev'y one between 87 and 93 on the gun -- and taveras was able to foul four of them off. took the other four for balls and got himself on, loading the bases for berkman.

which brings us nicely to perhaps the key play of the game, the jam-busting DP -- a beautiful illustration of the cards' prowess in the twin-killing department. most infields would not have turned that one; at best they'd have gotten a forceout, which would have scored a run and brought ensberg to the plate with two out and men at 1st and 3d -- still a very dangerous spot. it's difficult DPs like that one that separate the cardinals from the field. per my handy dp-run-saver estimation utility, the berkman dp saved the cardinals 1.5 runs. throw in nunez's peg to molina next inning to erase another run, and the infield play saved 2.5 tallies -- the whole margin of victory.

the cardinals' signature hitting skills also got an airing last night: a homer, a squeeze, alert baseunning, a couple of timely two-out opposite-field hits. so another fine clinic about how to play the game, and a 1-0 lead in the series.