ST. LOUIS — The conclusion Sunday to this year's I-70 Series had subplots sprouting everywhere before the Kansas City Royals swallowed another big dose of disappointment when Skip Schumaker's walk-off homer lifted the St. Louis Cardinals to a 5-4 victory at Busch Stadium.
"They don't come too often," Schumaker said. "It was a good time to hit it."
It was fitting; this game deserved a dramatic ending.
There were injuries to two key performers, one on each side — including a potentially serious wrist injury to Cardinals star Albert Pujols on a collision with Wilson Betemit at first base in the sixth inning.
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That came one inning after Pujols offered a stare-down on an inside pitch from Louis Coleman and some serious styling on a subsequent rocket-blast homer.
There was, from all appearances, retaliation from the Cardinals in the seventh when reliever Brian Tallet plunked Alex Gordon in the back — after throwing a pitch behind him.
The Royals pulled even at 4-4 when blue-hot Alcides Escobar opened the ninth inning by hitting his first homer of the season. That was long after a leg cramp forced Royals starter Danny Duffy to depart after striking out nine in 3 2/3 innings.
It all funneled Schumaker's walk-off drive against Tim Collins, 3-4, with one out in the ninth inning. Collins missed with a first-pitch curve and came in with a fastball _ and watched Schumaker turn it around for a 404-foot drive to right.
"I don't want to say it's a guessing game," Collins said, "but he's obviously sitting fastball there. He got it, and he hit it. It was down. It might have been a little over the plate, but I was trying to get back into the count.
"Not throwing that curveball for a strike changes everything."
The victory enabled the Cardinals to win two of three in the weekend series _ just as they did last month at Kauffman Stadium. The loss dropped the Royals, 31-41, into last place in the American League Central Division.
"We know we can win," right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "We know we can compete. That's what Ned (Yost) came in and told us after the game. He said, 'We're playing our (backsides) off. That's all you can ask for.'
"I think everybody understands that we can go on a run, that we're good enough to do that. For us, we're just waiting for our turn to get hot and go."
A nine-game road trip, which concluded Sunday, offered that opportunity. The Royals faced three struggling teams, won the first game in each series and still headed home at 4-5. The Cardinals had lost seven straight before rallying Saturday to win.
"I swear we're playing good baseball," Gordon said. "We're close."
Nobody is playing better than Escobar, who capped a 10-pitch at-bat _ and an 18-for-33 trip _ by rocking a 396-foot homer in the ninth against Cardinals closer Fernando Salas.
"He was spitting on pitches for balls," Yost said. "Battling on strikes. And he got a pitch he could drive."
But Salas, 4-1, got the victory when Collins served up Schumaker's answering shot, which came after Francoeur cut down Daniel Descalso's bid for a leadoff double with a strong throw from right that temporarily silenced the crowd of 41,660.
Even so, it was, possibly, a costly victory for the Cardinals.
Pujols left the game in the sixth inning in obvious pain because of a sprained left wrist after his collision with Betemit. Pujols will be reexamined today to get a better assessment of the injury.
"All I can tell you right now is that I'm pretty sore," he said. "Am I worried? Of course."
Pujols' injury came an inning after he hit that booming homer against Coleman, which followed a stare-down after a high-and-tight first pitch.
"It was supposed to be low and away," Coleman said. "I just tried to throw it too hard and got it up and in."
Pujols worked the count full before unloading a cannon shot to left. He stood at the plate and watched the ball's flight before starting his trot around the bases. It gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead at the time.
The injury occurred after Betemit led off the sixth with a hopper up the middle. Second baseman Pete Kozma reached the ball, but his throw pulled Pujols into the baseline and an oncoming Betemit.
"That's just part of the game," Betemit said. "I could do nothing about that. I was just running hard, and I felt it when he hit my arm. Then I turned around and saw him on the ground. I didn't think we hit that hard, but he was hurt."
The collision bent Pujols' left wrist back. He fell to the ground in pain and, soon thereafter, left the game holding his wrist. Betemit was credited with a single, which the Royals turned into the tying run.
Betemit went to second on Matt Treanor's sacrifice and to third on Chris Getz's single to left. Escobar produced the run with a perfect bunt single to new first baseman Lance Berkman.
St. Louis regained the lead later in the inning on Schumaker's pinch single against Blake Wood, and it stayed 4-3 until Escobar pulled the Royals even in the ninth.
Tallet hit Gordon in the back to start the seventh inning and did so after throwing a pitch behind him. Interestingly, no warnings followed as Gordon trotted to first.
"The first pitch," Gordon said, "I was thinking, 'OK, he's trying to come inside.' I was taking all the way. Then he hit me in the back.
"What was that for? Coming inside to Albert? You can't pitch inside to Albert? He hit a home run, so get over it. What are you retaliating about?"
Gordon took to second on Melky Cabrera's single through the right side and, after Miguel Batista replaced Tallet, to third on Billy Butler's fly to center. Batista escaped when Francoeur lined into a double play.
Francoeur slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration.
"That's the way it's going right now," he said. "Melky is breaking for second base, and (Kozma) has no reason to be in that position."