ST. LOUIS -- In a grueling game of attrition, the Cardinals finally stumbled first. St. Louis used every available player in coming back from a massive early deficit, but still came up just short of what would have been the best win of the year.
Ramon Hernandez hit a two-out pinch-hit double on an 0-2 pitch from Raul Valdes in the 13th inning, sending the Reds to a hard-earned 9-8 win over St. Louis at Busch Stadium on Wednesday. The Cards had rallied from eight runs down to force extra innings, but their bullpen could only be asked to keep a clean sheet for so long.
Valdes was the sixth Cardinals reliever after starter Jake Westbrook lasted 4 1/3 innings. Every pitcher in the bullpen except Lance Lynn, who was off limits, appeared in the game. So did every non-pitching player on the roster.
"We invested a lot of pitching and a lot of effort, but that's the way it's supposed to be," manager Tony La Russa said. "I'd rather do that than lose 8-0."
Valdes, a left-hander, issued a leadoff walk to the lefty-swinging Jay Bruce, which was asking for trouble in front of a run of right-handed hitters. With one out, Drew Stubbs singled Bruce to second. Ryan Hanigan flied out for the second out, and Valdes got within one strike of finishing off Hernandez, who was pinch-hitting for pitcher Jose Arredondo. But the veteran catcher turned on an inside fastball, placing it just inside the left-field line for an RBI double.
The fastball from Valdes was inside, but not off the plate or down enough to keep Hernandez from coming up with the game-winner.
"I was just trying to look for something I could hit and put it in play," Hernandez said. "I wanted to hit it and make something happen. You've got a shot to make something happen. I got lucky to hit it where nobody was."
The Cardinals had completely flatlined for the first five innings before their rousing rally. Cincinnati jumped Westbrook for five runs in the top of the first and held an 8-0 lead in the middle of the fifth before the Redbirds roared back against Bronson Arroyo and the Cincinnati bullpen.
Albert Pujols went 1-for-6 with an RBI single in his first game back in the lineup after missing 2 1/2 weeks due to a broken bone in the area of his left wrist. Pujols' hit was a high chopper over the head of Scott Rolen, driving in the Redbirds' seventh run.
Westbrook fared reasonably well after his disastrous beginning, lasting into the fifth inning, but the right-hander simply couldn't get his pitches down at the start. He missed with fastball after fastball in the early going. The Reds swung aggressively and didn't miss.
"It was easy for them to do that when [I left] balls up in the zone," Westbrook said. "Make quality pitches, they might not be as aggressive, but when you put it belt-high down the middle and elevate balls, it makes it a lot easier to hit. They made me pay for it."
Chris Heisey jumped the first pitch of the game and drove it 399 feet over the visitors' bullpen in left field for a home run. On a 1-1 count to Edgar Renteria, Westbrook left a fastball up and out over the plate, and Renteria drilled it for a single. Westbrook walked Joey Votto on five pitches, and only the last of those was his first offspeed pitch of the night.
Westbrook got too much of the plate with another fastball to Brandon Phillips, who smacked it to right field for a triple that made it 3-0, and Bruce completed the onslaught by digging out a decent 1-0 changeup and taking it deep to right. Twelve pitches, five batters, five runs.
It wasn't enough to sink the Redbirds, however, even when Arroyo was untouchable for five innings. Entering the sixth, the only hit against him was disputed, on a bouncer to first by Daniel Descalso in the third inning. In the sixth, though, Arroyo started showing some cracks.
After Cincinnati had tacked on three more runs against Westbrook and Trever Miller in the fourth and fifth, the Cards finally got to work on offense. Back-to-back doubles by Tony Cruz and Descalso kindled a two-run sixth before the Redbirds erupted in the seventh.
The first four hitters of the inning managed hits, and after a lineout by Cruz, Arroyo was lifted. But the Cards kept up the barrage against Bill Bray and Logan Ondrusek, capped by Pujols' single. However, Matt Holliday, whose homer ignited the rally, hit into a force to end the inning. Jon Jay's solo homer in the ninth forced extras, but the Cardinals did not score again.
"We were down, 8-0, and we came back like we did -- that's huge," Jay said. "We just played a good game after that. We came back and gave ourselves a chance, and that's huge."
Four relievers combined to pitch seven innings of shutout ball for the Cardinals, getting them from the sixth through the 12th, before Valdes was reached for the single tally in the 13th.
The Cardinals remained in first place in the National League Central, one game ahead of Milwaukee, which moved back into second place on Wednesday. The Pirates are in third place, 1 1/2 games back, with Cincinnati three games out in fourth.
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.