Carpenter, Cards boosted by two homers

Carpenter, Cards boosted by homers

LOS ANGELES -- The Cardinals got eight strong innings from the surest thing in their starting rotation, Chris Carpenter. They got a home run from the surest thing in any starting lineup in baseball, Albert Pujols. Then they turned to their newest lock, and he didn't disappoint.

Just as he's done 29 other times this year, Ryan Franklin closed out a win for the Redbirds on Monday night, and this one wasn't easy. Franklin retired Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake, two hitters who have tattooed him over the years, to secure a 3-2 victory over the Dodgers that was St. Louis' fifth in a row.

The Cards have won nine out of 10 for the first time since April 15-27, 2005, when they won 11 times in 12 games. And they stretched their lead in the National League Central to six games over the Cubs, who lost to the Padres on a walk-off home run.

And while you can point to many reasons for the Cardinals' success -- Carpenter and Adam Wainwright at the top of the rotation, Pujols' sustained excellence, a lineup deepened by midseason trades -- Franklin must surely rank somewhere near the top. He's converted 30 of 32 save opportunities while posting an eye-popping 1.16 ERA.

Whereas the ninth inning was at best a tossup and at times an absolute mess for the Cardinals in 2008, this year it's been a breeze.

"You know he's going to go in there and get it done," said Rick Ankiel, whose two-run homer in the seventh inning was the game-winning knock. "You have confidence. Whenever you have that, I think it changes the overall morale of the team. It's a good thing to have for sure."

This one was a little bit different for Franklin, but it still worked out. After eight solid innings from ace Carpenter, manager Tony La Russa turned to lefty Trever Miller to get the first out of the ninth, on left-handed hitter Andre Ethier. Then he summoned Franklin to face Ramirez and Blake.

For his career, Ramirez had been 5-for-14 against Franklin with two homers, while Blake was 6-for-11 with three extra-base hits. A combined .440 batting average was looking straight at Franklin.

"I don't exactly know the numbers, but I know they have hit me in the past," Franklin said. "But I think I'm a different pitcher than I was back then. That was when I was starting. I'm trying to get a little smarter as I age. I think I'm, I wouldn't say completely different, but a lot different pitcher than I was back then."

He showed it right away, when Ramirez popped up to first base on the first pitch. It was a little harder against Blake, who took a fastball outside before driving another heater deep to center. But Colby Rasmus corralled the ball, and the Cardinals had their 68th win.

"The reason that was a tough matchup, for any pitcher in baseball, is because they're both excellent clutch hitters," La Russa said.

For Franklin, No. 30 had special significance. It's not the same as, say, 20 wins, but it's a defining number in a reliever's mind -- equivalent perhaps to 30 home runs or 100 RBIs for a hitter.

"If you'd asked me at the beginning of the season if I'd have 30 saves, I'd have said, 'I hope,'" Franklin said. "To think that I'd have it in mid-August, no way. It's cool. It's a big deal."

Of course, it took a lead for Franklin to have the chance at No. 30, and that came courtesy of Carpenter, Pujols and Ankiel. The two sluggers went deep into the seats, and the ace went deep into the game.

Aside from the two homers, Dodgers starter Charlie Haeger kept the Cardinals very much in check. But two pitches cost the knuckleballer the game. Pujols cranked a 1-0 pitch into the left-field stands in the fourth inning, tying the score at 1. And after the Dodgers moved back ahead, Ankiel jacked a two-run shot to right in the seventh to put St. Louis ahead for the first time. He drove in Ryan Ludwick, who had been hit by a pitch one batter earlier.

"You get a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning, you feel like you have a leg up against any ballclub," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't take it home."

Carpenter won his eighth straight decision to improve to 13-3 on the year. He has pitched at least seven innings in seven straight starts and has allowed two or fewer runs in seven of his past nine games. He allowed five hits and a walk and struck out eight. The 2005 Cy Young Award winner did find himself in trouble at times but worked out of it every time.

In the first inning, he faced the bases loaded with one out but held Los Angeles to a run, thanks to Ludwick's superb play. Blake hit a liner to right, and though the ball scored Rafael Furcal from third, Ludwick threw out Ethier trying to advance from second to third.

"I just threw the ball," Ludwick said. "I knew I probably didn't have a chance at Furcal, because he has good speed, obviously. I knew the runner behind him would be running, with where I caught the ball. So I took a shot at third and I'm just glad it was on line."

Carpenter stranded James Loney at second base in the fifth after an RBI single and stolen base with no outs. And Carpenter's last out of the game was a strikeout of Orlando Hudson with the tying run on second base. Then he turned it over to Franklin, who brought it home. Again.

"Look at his numbers and the stuff that he's done all year," Carpenter said. "He's been great. He comes in pounding the strike zone and not scared. That's what it's all about. He's done a great job. You can't say enough about what Frankie's done."

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