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Cycle backs Carpenter's gem

Cycle backs Carpenter's gem

ST. LOUIS -- It's hard to imagine what else Chris Carpenter could receive for his 30th birthday. He already got quite a gift pack on Wednesday: a cycle from teammate Mark Grudzielanek, a struggling Brewers lineup across the diamond from him, a solid showing from St. Louis' reconfigured bullpen and an assortment of stuff that just keeps getting better.

Carpenter (4-1) struck out 12, tying a career high, as the Cardinals beat Milwaukee, 6-3, at Busch Stadium on Wednesday. Grudzielanek became the third Cardinal to hit for the cycle at Busch, and also hit the second leadoff home run of his career.

It was the Cardinals' sixth straight win and 11th in the last 12 games as they improved their National League-best record to 14-5. St. Louis is 5-0 against Milwaukee this year and holds a four-game lead over the second-place Cubs in the NL Central.

"It was a good day," said Carpenter. "I felt good. My stuff was good. All the way around. We played a good game, scored some runs early, gave me a chance to be aggressive and I made good, quality pitches."

Carpenter (4-1) lasted 7 2/3 innings, permitting three runs on eight hits, but not walking a batter. He struck out 12 Brewers, equaling a personal mark he set on Sept. 4, 2001, when he was pitching for Toronto against the Yankees. For the year, he's struck out 27 batters against six walks, topping even his ridiculous 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio from last year.

Unlike last season, when Carpenter got off to something of a slow start because of an iffy curveball, he has had his full repertoire in the early going this year. He made numerous Brewers look foolish with breaking pitches, while also hammering the bottom of the strike zone with his sinking fastball -- which repeatedly hit 93 mph.

"I didn't have [a curveball] four or five starts into last year," Carpenter said. "It was there for effect, but physically -- I don't know if it was arm strength or what it was -- I wasn't able to consistently throw it for a strike and do what I wanted to do with it. I relied on my cutter a lot more.

"I'm starting to get back to where right now I feel like I can throw my curveball for a strike, or down, or in the dirt, both sides of the plate any time I want to do it. And that was, I think, a key factor for today."

Grudzielanek's offensive show was a key factor as well. The second baseman's cycle was the 16th in franchise history. He opened the home half of the game with a leadoff homer, singled in the second and doubled in the fourth, all off Victor Santos, before tripling in the sixth inning.

Grudzielanek grounded out in his final at-bat to finish his 4-for-5 day. Albert Pujols reached base four times for St. Louis, and Jim Edmonds drove in two runs with a single and a double.

"I've hit [Santos] well in the past, and I was just trying to have the same approach I did," Grudzielanek said. "I must have been feeling pretty good at the times I've faced him. It's just one of those things. The next time I face him, he could own me."

Staked to a three-run lead, the Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen-free bullpen did not disappoint. Carpenter stuck it out for 118 pitches before handing the ball to Ray King, who struck out Russell Branyan to end the eighth.

Julian Tavarez, the likely closer while Isringhausen recuperates from a strained abdominal muscle, allowed a single, but struck out the side in the ninth for his first save of the year.

"I'm not gonna think that I'm the closer," Tavarez said. "I just go out there thinking I need three outs. I'm not thinking about, 'This is the ninth inning,' nothing like that. I've just got to go out there and get one guy after another and not think about closing the game.

"I know I can't get too comfortable out there. It belongs to the big man, Jason, one of the best closers in the game. And I hope he can come back soon, because we're gonna miss Jason in the bullpen. ... I know it's not my job. I'm not gonna get comfortable in some place that doesn't belong to me. I'm just happy that they're giving me the chance to do it out there and close the game."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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