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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Ankiel's walk-off single caps rally

Outfielder drills two-run hit off Cubs closer Wood in ninth
ST. LOUIS -- They were down two runs in the ninth against fireballer, Kerry Wood who does not cave in. They had no business beating their archrivals. But you know what? They did.

Rick Ankiel's remarkable climb continued Saturday afternoon, as the Cardinals stole Game 2 from the Cubs, 5-4. Relying on Ankiel's two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth, the Cardinals moved within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Cubs. It was the eighth time in the last nine games of the series that two runs or less determined the score.

By the time Ankiel turned first base, his teammates mobbed him in a joyous celebration fit only for a victory seen on a day like this.

"I didn't like our chances once [Wood] retired the first two guys," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's got so many weapons. ... That was a hellacious comeback considering the quality of the pitcher."

"He throws so hard and I was really looking for a pitch to drive up the middle," Ankiel added. "It's unbelievable. It's a big series for us -- a big game. To come back like that, it's a lot of fun."

No matter how good Wood had been -- he'd converted his previous 12 save opportunities -- the Cardinals didn't care. They approached the inning as if they were never out of it, and the logic paid dividends.

Ryan Ludwick and Yadier Molina both walked to open the inning, and Adam Kennedy followed with a double. La Russa said he thought about bunting to advance the runners, but did not do so because "it wasn't the winning play."

He was right.

The winning play came four batters later, when Ankiel stepped up to the plate against Wood -- a pitcher he had only faced once before.

On a big stage, in an even bigger cathedral, the new Busch Stadium entertained the largest crowd in its brief history, as 46,865 fans witnessed Ankiel deliver and send the Cardinals into bliss.

"He's dangerous," La Russa said of Ankiel. "He comes to play defense every day, he gives you everything and never takes an at-bat off. ... Ankiel is a very talented guy and, as he adds more experience, he's going to get better."

It has been a long road for Ankiel, who struggled with injuries and command problems before he switched to making his Major League comeback as a hitter. Last year, the persistence paid off, and now Ankiel has become one of the Cardinals' offensive leaders.

"Certainly right now, it seems things are going well," Ankiel said. "Hopefully I can continue to get better."

It's hard to get much better than the way Ankiel has played the last couple of weeks. Since June 15, Ankiel is batting .284 with seven home runs and is slugging .649.

It was another win for the Cardinals, and they continue to play for the benefit of the team rather than the individual. Very few teams win 50 games by the All-Star break with one or two All-Stars. The Cardinals could be one of those exceptions.

Now, back to 11 games over .500, the Cardinals continue to impress and prove wrong those who wrote them off three months ago.

They impress with the likes of Ankiel, who also homered in the sixth inning and finished the day 3-for-4 with four RBIs. They do it with Kyle McClellan (1-3), a St. Louis native who gave up only a hit in the final two innings to earn his first career win.

They win with Ludwick, who was written off over the past few years, only to enjoy a career year. If not for Ludwick's strike of a throw to Molina in the eighth inning with the bases loaded, Jim Edmonds would have scored on a sacrifice fly to make the score 5-2.

But as they say, "Not in our house."

"I kind of double-clutched," Ludwick said. "I reached in and couldn't find the ball at first. After I double-clutched, I just let it fly. Thank God it was on target."

Asked why the Cardinals continue to win, Ludwick simply replied that they keep fighting. "We're always fighting, no matter how much we're down," he said.

Down, 2-0, until the sixth inning, the Cardinals kept fighting behind starter Kyle Lohse, who continued his dominance in his first year in St. Louis. Lohse pitched seven innings, gave up two runs, struck out five and never let the Cubs rally.

"It was tough," Lohse said. "I just knew I had to keep it close and hope for some heroics like we got."

He had to wait until the sixth and ninth innings, but Lohse saw those heroics. Ankiel's solo shot made the score 2-1, and Albert Pujols followed with a double. After stealing third, he scored when Ludwick doubled.

Though Ryan Franklin served up a two-run home run in the eighth to Aramis Ramirez, who broke out of an 0-for-28 slump, it set the stage for one of the Cardinals' more dramatic wins of the year.

"That's unbelievable," McClellan said. "But Fourth of July weekend against the Cubs, around here we come to expect that."

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