ST. LOUIS — Big swings by a slumping hitter, clutch innings by a journeyman pitcher. Suddenly, the St. Louis Cardinals are looking very dangerous.
As for the Philadelphia Phillies? Things have turned downright squirrelly.
David Freese, shut down by Phillies aces the first three games, became a hometown star Wednesday night. He homered, doubled and drove in four runs as the Cardinals defeated nemesis Roy Oswalt and forced a deciding fifth game in their NL playoff series by beating the favored Phillies 5-3.
“This is what you worked for,” said Freese, a local prep star who came to the Cardinals in a trade for Jim Edmonds after the 2007 season. “Just to do this in front of the fans of St. Louis and a bunch of friends and family, it’s amazing.”
Center fielder Jon Jay made a sliding catch on Placido Polanco’s soft fly for the final out, and was already pointing his index finger before he got to his feet.
“We’re not looking at this like we’re just happy to be here and it’s David and Goliath,” Cardinals slugger Lance Berkman said.
Now it’s back to Philadelphia for Game 5 on Friday night. Roy Halladay, who won the opener for the Phillies, will face St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter — they played together in Toronto for five years.
“They’re good friends and old teammates, and Carp was really chomping at the bit for this opportunity to pitch against Roy on full rest in a huge Game 5,” Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday said. “It should be quite a battle and then it’ll be fun to watch two great competitors go head to head and two great teams get after it.”
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel agreed.
“Might be fitting that it goes down to the fifth game,” he said. “It’s up to us to go get it. It’s sitting right there for us. We’ve got our ace going, and we’re at home, and so everything is sitting right there.”
The 102-win Phillies were picked by many to win it all. But first they must dispose of the wild-card Cardinals, who clinched a playoff spot on the last day of the season and have gotten the best of two members of the Phils’ star-studded rotation.
An omen, maybe: Right after Oswalt threw a pitch in the fifth, a squirrel darted across the plate.
Oswalt argued, unsuccessfully, that the creature’s dash had distracted him on a pitch called a ball.
“I didn’t want to stop in the middle of my motion, so I threw it,” Oswalt said. “I was wondering what size of animal it needed to be for it not to be a pitch.”
Manuel argued, to no avail.
“Of course, being from the South and being a squirrel hunter, if I had a gun there, might have did something,” Manuel said. “I’m a pretty good shot.”
Albert Pujols was hitless in four at-bats in what could have been his final home game with the Cardinals. He received thunderous cheers every trip to the plate from a standing room crowd of 47,071, second-largest at 6-year-old Busch Stadium.
Pujols made his presence known on defense, catching Chase Utley going for an extra base in the sixth. Utley drew a leadoff walk and kept running on Hunter Pence’s grounder to short, but Pujols alertly jumped off first base to catch the throw and made a sharp relay to third for the out.
“This is obviously the playoffs, but that’s a play I can make in the regular season, too,” Pujols said. “If I would have stayed on the bag, it was going to be tough to get the runner at third. Obviously, that killed the rally right there.”
Edwin Jackson recovered from a rocky beginning to win his first playoff start. After giving up two runs on his first five pitches, he wound up throwing six solid innings. Jason Motte worked a perfect ninth for his second save of the series.
Phillies cleanup hitter Ryan Howard, like Freese a St. Louis product, was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts. He is 0 for 8 the last two games with five strikeouts and has hit only one ball out of the infield.
“I think I’ve been a little bit anxious trying to go up and trying to make things happen instead of letting things happen,” Howard said. “Right now I’m just kind of jumping, so just try to recognize pitches better.”
Oswalt had been 5-0 with a 3.25 ERA in 10 previous postseason starts, the biggest closing out old Busch Stadium and the Cardinals in 2005 to get Houston to its first World Series. The right-hander also worked seven shutout innings against St. Louis in the Phillies’ NL East division clincher in mid-September.
“It’s good to get some early runs, for sure,” Oswalt said. “I felt pretty comfortable after that. Just two bad pitches.”
The biggest jolts for the Cardinals came from their seventh-place hitter. Freese was 2 for 12 the first three games with one RBI before punishing the fourth of the Phillies’ aces.
Freese’s two-run double down the third-base line in the fourth put St. Louis up 3-2. His two-run homer to straightaway center in the sixth whipped the crowd into a towel-waving frenzy.
Oswalt walked Berkman and hit Holliday, making his first start of the series, to start the fourth. Pence made a fine running catch on the right field warning track to rob Yadier Molina of extra bases, but Freese jumped on a hanging curveball with a drive down the left-field line.
Holliday singled with one out in the sixth and Freese hit a 1-0 pitch to the pasture in straightaway center, not far from where a squirrel made an early appearance, for a three-run cushion. A squirrel also interrupted play in the fifth, racing across the plate an instant after Oswalt’s pitch to Skip Schumaker passed for a ball.
Oswalt argued with plate umpire Angel Hernandez, asking for no pitch. On the next, Schumaker flied out.
In Game 3 Tuesday, a squirrel was seen scampering in foul territory along the third base line.
Five pitches into the game, the Phillies had a 2-0 lead with an assist from the late-afternoon playing conditions.
Jay, standing in bright sunshine while shadows, took one step in on leadoff man Jimmy Rollins’ drive on the first pitch of the game and retreated too late for a ball just over his glove that bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double.
Utley tripled just inside the first-base line three pitches later and Pence lined an RBI single on the next pitch.
NOTES: 2B Schumaker was taken out with a left hamstring cramp after a flyout in the fifth — the same at-bat the squirrel made its appearance. After disrupting play, the squirrel scampered through the stands. Schumaker is 5 for 8 in the series. … Rollins doubled and had an infield hit his first two trips and has nine hits in the series. He has 14 multihit games in the playoffs, passing Howard for most in franchise history. … The Cardinals became the second team to reach 100 postseason victories, trailing only the Yankees’ 220.