Cardinals can't climb out of early hole
Against Cubs' Lilly, Thompson's struggles spell doom
CHICAGO -- Brad Thompson stood on the cusp of escape.
The Cardinals' starting pitcher had loaded the bases in the first inning on two walks and a single but had two outs and got ahead of Milton Bradley, 0-2. With one pitch, things began to cave in on Thompson.
The veteran right-hander tried to go inside but went way too far and plunked Bradley on the leg to force in a run. Jeff Baker followed with a two-run single, and the Cardinals fell behind by three runs. They never recovered, falling, 5-2, to the Cubs and starter Ted Lilly on Saturday to even the four-game series.
"To have 0-2 on Bradley and then hit him, there's no excuse for that," Thompson said. "That's ridiculous."
The hole into which Thompson put his club was magnified with the left-handed Lilly on the rubber for the Cubs. St. Louis has had trouble with southpaws all season, entering play with a .227 batting average and .668 OPS against them, compared with marks of .268 and .771 against right-handers. Lilly (9-6), who will represent the Cubs at the All-Star Game on Tuesday in St. Louis, has been one of the best lefties in baseball this season.
Manager Tony La Russa stacked his lineup with seven right-handed hitters, using Nick Stavinoha in left field and Jarrett Hoffpauir at second. But the moves had little effect against Lilly, who has been just as good against right-handed batters in his career due to his ability to throw four pitches for strikes.
"He's got a lot of weapons," right fielder Ryan Ludwick said. "He's the type of guy that can keep hitters off-balance, because there's so much diversity between the different pitches. If you saw him four times in a game, he could attack you four different ways if he wanted to."
The Cardinals didn't get their first hit until Colby Rasmus beat Baker's lackadaisical throw from second base for an infield single to lead off the fourth. Rasmus later scored on Ludwick's shot down the third-base line that caromed off Aramis Ramirez for a double.
That was all St. Louis could muster against Lilly, who earned his 100th career victory and dropped his ERA at Wrigley Field this season to 1.86. He gave up four hits in eight innings, even though 16 of his 24 outs came on fly balls.
"The whole objective is to try to do what I can to help us get into first place," Lilly said. "I think when I look at my first half, it's nice and it's one of the better first halves I've had, at least statistically, but you still know there's a lot of pitching to do, and a lot of really important pitching coming up in the second half of the season, more so than the first half. It's nice to get off to a good start but more important to finish strong."
Once Carlos Marmol replaced Lilly in the ninth, the Cardinals got back into the game. Albert Pujols singled with one out, and Ludwick worked a walk. Chris Duncan's fielder's choice grounder put runners on the corners with two outs, and Yadier Molina smoked an RBI single to left to bring the tying run to the plate.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella brought in closer Kevin Gregg to face pinch-hitter Skip Schumaker, and Gregg got the strikeout to end the game.
"I just enjoyed the [heck] out of watching us keep playing and having a legitimate shot there at the end," La Russa said. "That's my favorite part of the game."
The rally could have made things more interesting if only Thompson (2-6) had not stepped back into trouble in the fifth. With one out, Ryan Theriot singled and Derrek Lee doubled him to third. Theriot scored on a ground ball by Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano knocked in Lee with a single to make it 5-1.
Thompson lasted 4 2/3 and gave up at least four runs for the fifth straight start. He likely will lose his rotation spot when Kyle Lohse comes off the disabled list Sunday.
"I felt my command was actually pretty poor, crossfiring a lot and missing a lot of spots," said Thompson, who walked three and threw two wild pitches. "I might get a strike on a guy, but it might not be where I wanted it to be. But what are you going to do? Our team, we battled today and unfortunately I couldn't put us in a position where we could win that game."
Andrew Simon is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.