CINCINNATI -- Back at ya!
Ryan Freel got three hits and made a down-and-dirty catch on the warning track that inspired a capacity crowd and helped the Cincinnati Reds roll to a 10-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night.
After losing the series opener 13-1, second-place Cincinnati emphatically evened its series with the NL Central leaders, moving to 3 ½ games back. The Reds matched their season high with 17 hits -- the same number that St. Louis had in the opener.
Hit by hit, they gave it right back.
"Everybody's been saying the wheels are going to fall off pretty much since March 1, but we keep hanging in there and keep battling," manager Jerry Narron said.
The division's top two teams play five more times in the next nine days, finishing a season series that has mostly gone Cincinnati's way. The Reds have stayed in contention by going 7-3 against St. Louis.
After Freel's catch preserved the lead in the fifth, Cincinnati pulled away against the bullpen. Adam Dunn had a bases-loaded single in the seventh, completing his three-RBI game. Rich Aurilia homered and drove in three, as well.
But it was Freel who made the most lasting impression with a diving catch that amazed his teammates and earned four standing ovations from the capacity crowd.
"Phenomenal," Freel said. "One of my biggest thrills ever."
Left-hander Eric Milton (8-7) kept the Cardinals in check with his third consecutive solid start. Milton gave up two runs -- one earned -- and five hits in six innings, turning a 4-2 lead over to a bullpen shored up by four recent trades.
Jason Marquis (12-10) lasted only 2 2/3 innings in his third straight loss, a rough stretch at a bad time for the Cardinals. He allowed nine hits, including Aurilia's solo homer and run-scoring single, before leaving with the bases loaded in the third.
"I don't know what he was doing out there today," manager Tony La Russa said. "He was out there just firing. I'm not sure why he thought that was the way to go about it. It was like he was thinking he could overpower them."
In two of his last three starts, Marquis has failed to make it to the fifth inning -- a very bad thing for the bullpen.
"I'm doing a little too much thinking instead of trusting my good stuff, staying with the basics and doing what I do best," Marquis said.
On their second try, the Reds managed to fill their ballpark for a high-stakes game.
The Reds offered half-price tickets and $1 hot dogs for three of the four games in the series but drew only 34,262 fans for the opener. A late flurry of ticket sales brought the crowd to 40,094, the Reds' fifth sellout of the season for the get-even game.
Fans were on their feet in the fifth, when Freel saved a lead and, quite possibly, the victory.
Down 4-1, the Cardinals got the first two runners aboard to start the inning. Albert Pujols hit a liner to the gap in right-center, sure to score a pair of runs and change the momentum if the ball hit the ground.
Freel, one of the fastest Reds, went after the ball in a full sprint, lunged as he reached the edge of the warning track and made a fully extended catch in the air before landing hard on his chest and sliding to a halt.
The front of his white uniform was caked with dark brown dirt when he got up. He threw the ball to the infield and punched the air in celebration. He received an extended ovation -- the next batter, Scott Rolen, had to back out of the box because of the din.
"That changed the game right there," Milton said. "The momentum turned around. It probably won the game for us. It was a gift out. It was like he gave me a Christmas present. It was a huge load off my shoulders, and then the crowd started getting into it."
Freel got another standing ovation when he came off the field after the top of the inning, and the fans again rose to their feet the last two times he came to bat.
- SS David Eckstein was back in the Cardinals' lineup after missing one game with the team's permission to attend to a personal matter.
- RHP Braden Looper left in the eighth because his back was bothering him.
- Reds LHP Brandon Claussen will have surgery Monday to clean out his pitching shoulder. He's expected back for spring training.
- RHP Bronson Arroyo had his hair braided into cornrows Tuesday, hoping to break his streak of seven weeks without a win. Arroyo is scheduled to pitch Thursday against the Cardinals.