08/23/2002 00:42 am ET
Vina delivers in the clutch
Game-winning double caps three-run rally in 9th
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- Don't try to tell the Cardinals that the journey is more fun than the destination. The journey on Thursday night was miserable, littered with lost opportunities. The destination was sublime, as the Redbirds pulled out an electric 5-4 ninth-inning win after trailing 4-2 against Mike Williams and the Pirates.
When Fernando Vina poked a two-run double down the right-field line, just past the glove of Kevin Young, and Edgar Renteria and Miguel Cairo came around to score, eight innings of frustration were forgotten. St. Louis celebrated like it had won something much bigger than a Thursday night game against a fourth-place team.
"It's a big boost for the team," said first baseman Tino Martinez, who started the deciding rally with a leadoff double. "Especially this time of the year, we get that attitude that the game's never over. We're down by two late in the game, we're not out of it."
The Cardinals have gotten to some of the best relievers in the game this year. Houston's Billy Wagner and Octavio Dotel, Cincinnati's Danny Graves, Seattle's Arthur Rhodes and Williams have all been victimized.
"He's one of the best closers in the league," Vina said. "You just go out there and try to battle, try to get a decent pitch to hit, because he's got great stuff. I took my last at-bat just battling and fortunately it worked out for me."
Not much has been working out for Vina lately. Two innings earlier, he missed a big opportunity, striking out with a runner on second base in a one-run game. Entering the game, he had been in a 19-for-98 slump.
A week ago, he might have been the last person the Cardinals wanted at the plate in a critical situation. But something was different Thursday night. Vina came out on the field early before the game, and he already had a pair of hits by the sixth inning.
"I don't like to strike out," Vina said. "I don't strike out much. I do my best to always put the bat on the ball. Obviously against that guy, you know he's trying to strike you out in that situation. I was just trying to battle, battle, battle, and it got to 3-2 and I fouled off some tough pitches and fortunately I was able to get the good part of the bat on it."
Vina was only one of a series of heroes, none of them among the 2002 Cardinals' usual suspects.
Martinez's double to center got things going. Renteria drove the first baseman in with a single to left, after he had hit into a double play with two men on in the fourth. Cairo smoked a pinch-single to left that advanced Cairo to third, setting the table for Vina.
"Everybody that went to bat that inning was special," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
That's as opposed to some earlier at-bats, which didn't go nearly so well. The Cardinals had a runner in scoring position with fewer than two outs on three different occasions before the ninth, and none of those runners scored.
"It was really a frustrating game offensively for eight innings because we had some chances with some of our best run producers," La Russa said. "And the guy made a great pitch and we'd get zero. But we kept playing and broke through. That's why you can never figure this game."
For Vina to come through against Williams was as hard to figure as anything. He was 1-for-12 against Williams, with no extra-base hits, before his game-winner. And he had to work for that.
The St. Louis leadoff man, who is about as tough to walk as he is to strike out, worked a 3-1 count on Williams. He swung and missed at a ball down at 3-1, then fouled off a 3-2 pitch. All the while, Williams was making fake pickoff throws in an attempt to catch Cairo or Renteria off-guard.
"I'm just trying to stay back on him," Vina said. "I think that whole at-bat he threw me nothing but changeups or splits. He has good movement on it. I'm just trying to make contact. I'm trying to get that runner in from third any way I can."
His teammates never had any doubt.
"He just kept battling and battling," Martinez said. "I was hoping he'd get a base hit. Forget the sac fly and tie the game, I was hoping he'd get a base hit and give us a chance to win. That was a big clutch hit."
Matthew Leach covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. He can be reached at Matthew_H_Leach@yahoo.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.