Baseball / Sports

Cards, Miller drop Braves, 4-1

ST. LOUIS--There was more to his reboot at Class AAA Memphis for speedy infielder Kolten Wong than just getting regular playing time and relocating his swing.

He had a chance to reacquaint himself with his feet.

On Saturday, he introduced them to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Sparks flew.

Wong led the Cardinals' fast-forward offense with two bunts for base hits, a stolen base, a forced error, two runs, and a key run on a sacrifice fly. The rookie second baseman's footprint was all over the Cardinals' first three runs as they cruised to a 4-1 victory against Atlanta at Busch Stadium. Starter Shelby Miller authored seven innings and his sharpest start of the season to compel the Cardinals to their fourth consecutive victory, tying the longest winning streak of the season.

"Going back down I realized I wasn't doing much with my feet," Wong said. "When I came back I wanted to make sure that speed was a main element to work with. Even though my swing is coming around I still have to make sure that people know I can run, that I can do things with my feet. That's what I'm here for."

As the Cardinals look for the offense they expect to have, an injection of footspeed gives them the chance to push for runs until the lineup revs to life. With Wong and Peter Bourjos, the two fleetest of Redbirds, getting more regular playing time this weekend against the Braves, they've had the chance to show another way to provide runs for a team lacking in power.

The only Cardinals to have multiple hits in the game, Wong and Bourjos combined for four bunt singles. The Cards are the first team since Detroit in September 2003 to have four bunt base hits in a single game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The win "was one of the best representations of what speed can do for us," manager Mike Matheny said. "How guys made things happen and then getting on base and creating havoc. ... I think it just gives us more weapons. Days when we can sit back there and slug, I'd like to see us slug. Days when we've got a tough pitcher like (Atlanta's Aaron) Harang that's not giving us a lot, we have to figure out a way to manufacture and that's what we did. It was fun to watch the guys use their gifts."

Hours before first pitch, Matheny sat in his office and described how the club's frustration stemmed not from an inability to play individual games at their best but "to replicate that on a consistent basis or a semi-consistent basis." The unsteady start to the season has been a long tease for the Cards, who have been unable to build winning streaks because of ragged play -- at the plate, on defense, or, more recently, on the mound. The Cardinals go for a sweep of the Braves Sunday, with Jaime Garcia making his first start in a year, because of two of their cleanest and best games of the season.

While Wong's speed provided the runs and embroidery on the second win in as many days against first-place Atlanta, it was another teammate finding his pace that was the core of the Cardinals' more-complete game.

Miller (6-2) has scuffled in recent starts because his mechanics falter or fail him in the middle innings. After consultation the past week with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, Miller increased his tempo on the mound Saturday and had his best variety of pitches. During one at-bat against Braves slugger Evan Gattis, Miller flipped four breaking balls. He had downward movement of his fastball and maintained the horsepower to elevate for three consecutive strikeouts on 93-mph fastballs in the fourth inning.

Miller struck out seven and completed seven innings for only the second time in his past 29 starts.

"Most of our guys work quickly," Miller said. "That was one of the main focuses. Try to stay in the zone and throw strikes and everything works out. The biggest thing is trying to get outs as quick as possible."

The only run Miller allowed was unearned because of an error from Wong. He threw wild to third base as the Cardinals pressed for an out in the second inning on a single to left field. Rather than lament the outcome, Matheny lauded the idea, calling it "an aggressive play." In the fifth inning, Yadier Molina jumped on a bunted ball that appeared to be foul and spun a double play that unplugged the Braves' rally. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez was ejected for arguing the call, though he came out two more times after the ejection to keep fuming.

"Aggressive plays" are the type of things Matheny has urged to jar the Cardinals from their funk. The Cardinals entered Saturday as one of the lowest-scoring teams in the majors, complete with the fourth-lowest slugging percentage (.362) and second-fewest homers (23). Speed offers them a way to rewire the offense.

Behold the power of the right bunt.

"When I'm not feeling that great at the plate, you drop a bunt down and get a hit out of it," Bourjos said. "It can affect a lot of games. It's not always there, but when it is, take advantage of it. And then, sure enough, you get your swing going and I don't feel like bunting. It can hold you over for a little bit."

Wong led off the fourth with a drag bunt against Harang (4-4). He scored from third when second baseman Tyler Pastornicky faded to shallow right and caught Yadier Molina's fly ball instead of right fielder and better arm Jason Heyward. Wong said he likely wouldn't have tried to score and tie the game had Heyward caught the ball. In the sixth, Wong meant to bunt Matt Carpenter into scoring position, but ran it out for a base hit. He tried to steal second and Gattis' throw went to center. Carpenter scored to break the 1-1 tie, and Wong followed on Allen Craig's RBI single.

The only Cardinals run Wong didn't influence came in the seventh, again on a bunt. Matt Adams tripled and then scored on a safety squeeze bunt by Bourjos.

Trevor Rosenthal collected his 13th save with a flawless ninth.

Now, the Cardinals can see how far they can run with their best stretch of baseball.

"That starts things. That's how baseball is -- one little thing can start a rally," Wong said. "When you get two bunts for hits in one game, you know things are going right."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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