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Monday, July 21, 2008

Miles drills walk-off slam for Cardinals

Redbirds complete four-game sweep of Padres

ST. LOUIS -- Everything added up perfectly for the Cardinals on Sunday. They had a series win in hand before they even took the field. A definitively miserable St. Louis summer day sapped the energy of even the most dedicated players. A rookie pitcher put the Cards in a late-innings hole, and the club's deposed closer endured another disheartening day.

If ever a game were made to be mailed in, this was it. So, of course, the Redbirds rallied twice in the late innings for a thrilling 9-5 win over the Padres, capped by possibly the unlikeliest game-ending scenario of the year: an Aaron Miles walk-off grand slam.

Miles' homer gave St. Louis its fifth straight win and kept the Cardinals undefeated since the All-Star break. The shot capped a wild day in which the Redbirds rallied from two deficits, took an eighth-inning lead and gave away that lead in the top of the ninth. The Cardinals completed a series sweep of the Padres, their first four-game sweep of any opponent this season.

"Fantasy Island," manager Tony La Russa called the win.

Albert Pujols started the winning rally when he drew a one-out walk in the ninth. Padres catcher Luke Carlin's pickoff attempt sailed into right field, allowing Pujols to motor all the way to third base. The Padres issued intentional walks to Yadier Molina and Skip Schumaker, bringing up Miles, who delivered the game-ender.

It was his third home run of the year, the 15th of his career and his second Major League grand slam. Miles had never hit a walk-off shot in the Majors or, he said, at any other level. He became the 10th player in Cardinals history to hit a walk-off grand slam.

"That's a feeling I wasn't sure I was going to get to experience, that walk-off homer," Miles said. "But it happened to me. I'd never done it before, not in the Minor Leagues or anywhere, so it's a great feeling."

For whatever reason, the '08 Cardinals have seemed to make a habit of such games. Though their bullpen leads the Majors with 23 blown saves, St. Louis has 24 come-from-behind wins and 12 final-at-bat wins.

A team that has been discounted all year long reached the 100-game mark at a season-best 14 games over .500, and very much in contention. The Cardinals trail the first-place Cubs by two games in the National League Central and lead the Brewers by one game for the Wild Card berth.

"It's a gritty group," said Troy Glaus. "We've got a lot of guys trying to perform for more playing time, things like that. Everybody's trying to give their absolute best when they're on the field, and I think the result of that is they play a hard nine innings -- or 10 innings, or whatever it takes."

Glaus had put St. Louis ahead, 5-3, in the bottom of the eighth with a monstrous three-run homer. Glaus had two home runs as of the morning of May 31, and has ripped 16 since.

Jason Isringhausen, called on for what would have been his first save since May 5, retired the first batter of the ninth on a ground ball. But Scott Hairston singled and Edgar Gonzalez doubled, cutting the lead to a single run. After Brian Giles singled, Isringhausen was removed for Brad Thompson, who allowed a game-tying double to Kevin Kouzmanoff, but no further damage.

Isringhausen's struggles cast the only shadow on an otherwise encouraging day for the Cardinals.

"No matter how clutch a veteran he is, he's trying to do more, and today was less," said La Russa. "It's hard to stay in a groove. And he really wants it so bad."

Still, because he was removed with a lead, Isringhausen was not charged with a blown save. And his successor, Thompson, emerged as a hero and the winning pitcher -- with plenty of help from Pujols.

Thompson surrendered a game-tying double to Kouzmanoff, then walked Chase Headley intentionally. But Carlin's screaming chopper was right at Pujols, who threw home for the force play and the second out. Adrian Gonzalez hit the next ball even harder, but on a line at Pujols, and the inning was over.

Rookie Jaime Garcia held his own in his first Major League start but did not receive a decision. Garcia allowed three runs on five hits over five innings, striking out four and walking one. He permitted a two-run homer to opposing starter Cha Seung Baek, but otherwise pitched a fine game. Garcia retired 10 in a row at one point.

Rick Ankiel hit an RBI double and Pujols drove in a run with a pinch-hit sacrifice fly before the fireworks really got going.

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