ST. LOUIS -- With staff aces taking the hill for both the Cardinals and the Reds on Monday, it was only fitting that a pitcher's duel ensued.
Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter went pitch for pitch with Reds hurler Johnny Cueto as St. Louis played small ball to beat Cincinnati, 1-0, at Busch Stadium thanks to a pinch-hit RBI single from rookie Mark Hamilton in the eighth inning.
Colby Rasmus singled to christen the frame and took second on a sacrifice bunt by Yadier Molina. Rasmus moved to third on Skip Schumaker's flyout to center and scored on Hamilton's infield single, which the rookie beat out with a headfirst slide into the bag.
Reds third baseman Scott Rolen made a diving stop to his right to corral the ball, then sprung up and made a strong throw to first, but Hamilton's outstretched hand reached the bag before the ball, and the crowd of 40,551 erupted.
Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, who managed Rolen for parts of six seasons in St. Louis, was quick to heap praise on the eight-time Gold Glove winner.
"That play Scott made may be the greatest play by a third baseman I've ever seen," La Russa said. "I have no idea how he got to that ball and threw the ball, I have no idea."
Hamilton wasn't planning on sliding into the bag and was in position to round first base when he saw Rolen make the play out of the corner of his eye.
"I thought it had a chance to get by him when I hit it," Hamilton said. "He made an unbelievable play on me, so I just had to get on my horse and get down the line, honestly the dive was just one of those spur-of-the-moment things. It's almost like I could feel the ball coming from Rolen at third, and I felt like I had to do something to get there."
Hamilton's go-ahead single was his first career pinch-hit RBI and team-leading sixth pinch-hit.
Carpenter turned in another dominant outing and scattered six hits over eight innings. He struck out three against one walk and threw 119 pitches. In his past four starts, the Cardinals' ace has thrown a combined 499 pitches but has shown no signs of fatigue.
"He threw outstanding and kept us in the game. He deserved to win," Hamilton said. "My first thought when I got to the bag was, 'We need to get this game shut down because he deserves this win.'"
The last time Carpenter and Cueto squared off, it was during a brawl between the clubs on August 10, 2010. Cueto, who was pitching that day, gave then-Cardinals catcher Jason LaRue a concussion by kicking him in the face, which led to LaRue's eventual retirement. Carpenter, who was not pitching that day, was near LaRue in the melee and was also kicked by Cueto. This time around, the two rivals left the fireworks to St. Louis' July 4th celebration.
After giving up back-to-back singles in the first, Carpenter retired the next 10 batters. He benefited from some great defense and fielded his position well, snatching a line drive and making three putouts on his own, while Jon Jay climbed the right-field wall to take away a likely home run from Jay Bruce and end the fourth. Carpenter won for the third time in as many starts and dropped his ERA (3.74) below 4.00 for the first time since April 29.
"It's just a nice win," Carpenter said. "Everything was going back and forth, back and forth and we were fortunate to get a little break."
Cueto was nearly as sharp as Carpenter. The right-hander needed 104 pitches to go eight innings and kept the Cards at bay until the eighth. Cueto allowed six hits and let one Cardinal reach scoring position prior to the deciding eighth inning. It was Cueto's second complete game of the season and his longest career outing against St. Louis.
"That was as good as you're going to see," said Reds manager Dusty Baker. "Both of them were dealing. We actually had more chances than they did. You hate to lose a game like that on a little jam-shot squibber because Johnny was great."
Rolen, who played with the Cardinals from 2002-07, recorded his 2,000th career hit with a single in the first inning.
Cards closer Fernando Salas worked a perfect ninth for his 15th save on the year.
"He was going to pitch in a tie game and all of a sudden, the weight of that [eighth] inning, and us walking away with a 'W' is on his three outs. Those closers are worth everything," La Russa said.
The Cardinals regained sole possession of first place in the National League Central, moving one game ahead of the Brewers.
Austin Laymance is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.