ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals made the rain, and the rules, work for them on Friday night in another strange chapter of a consistently compelling rivalry.
In the opener of a three-game series, Cards manager Tony La Russa took a gamble on an early rainstorm and it paid off. Kyle McClellan, originally scheduled as the St. Louis starter, pitched six innings of relief after a two-hour delay, leading St. Louis to a hard-fought 4-2 win over Cincinnati at Busch Stadium. McClellan had been scratched shortly before the game in favor of Miguel Batista, on the very assumption that a lengthy and early delay was in the offing.
That's exactly what happened, as exactly six pitches were thrown before the skies opened up.
Major League rules put rain-delay decisions in the hands of the home team until the first pitch is thrown, at which time it becomes the province of the umpires. The Cardinals were thus within their rights to begin the game, even with the awareness of impending heavy weather.
"As soon as we got here this afternoon, we had the forecast," La Russa said. "Mother Nature's going to take care of a lot of it, but you have to start the game and you don't know how long you're going to play. Especially if they think it's imminent. Now, if you think you're going to play for an hour or two, then you want to start Kyle. But if you think it's going to come ... Miguel was rested. He was the perfect guy to put in there."
Reds manager Dusty Baker stayed with his scheduled starter, Edinson Volquez, who went through his normal warmup routine before the game. By the time the delay was done, more than two hours had passed and Volquez had been wasted. Baker was forced to turn to his bullpen from the first Cardinals batter of the game, and it didn't work out for him.
St. Louis jumped on lefty Matt Maloney for single runs in each of the first three innings, and never looked back. Jordan Smith and Nick Masset turned in solid work behind Maloney, and in fact the Cardinals could have scored quite a bit more against Maloney and Smith, but they did enough damage to bring home the win. The sequence of events didn't sit well with Baker.
"It's really a tough start," Baker said. "The information that we received was probably not the same information they received, or else we wouldn't have started [Volquez] in the first place. We were told there was going to be a window of opportunity there. That window lasted about three minutes."
Albert Pujols drove in the first two runs, with a sacrifice fly and an RBI single. Lance Berkman scored the third when Jay Bruce bobbled a David Freese single, and Yadier Molina's RBI single made it 4-0. Yet, in the first five innings, the Cardinals hit into two double plays and ran into two outs on the bases, short-circuiting what could have been much bigger rallies.
McClellan made the runs stand up, pitching six effective if not overwhelming innings.
He performed a couple of impressive escapes, but none more difficult or important than in the sixth. A walk, a stolen base and an infield hit gave the Reds runners on the corners with none out. McClellan induced a grounder to the right side by Edgar Renteria, and rather than take the double play and concede the run, the Cardinals went for the lead runner. They got Jonny Gomes in a rundown for the first out, but left McClellan with men on second and third and only one out.
He still dodged it, getting Miguel Cairo to ground out to shortstop, followed by a Ramon Hernandez fly out to left field.
"It was definitely a turning point," McClellan said. "There's two runners on. You come out of the game with a no-decision, that gives them the momentum. There's definitely points [in a game]. ... That right there, I knew if you can put a zero up right there it's big momentum for us and it kind of shuts the door on them."
Rookie Eduardo Sanchez just about matched the feat an inning later. Making the fourth Major League appearance of his career, Sanchez entered the game with two on and none out in the seventh. He got Brandon Phillips to fly out on his first pitch, then walked Joey Votto. A wild pitch put runners on second and third, and Ryan Hanigan scored on Gomes' sacrifice fly, but Sanchez got the dangerous Jay Bruce to fly out to end the inning with minimal damage.
The Cardinals improved to 11-9 on the season, the first time this year they've been two games over .500. They are alone in first place in the division, also for the first time in 2011, one-half game ahead of Milwaukee. The Reds are in third, one game back.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.