ST. LOUIS – The moment seemed absurdly important. Every time Yadier Molina was fouled – four of them in total – or every two-hit bullet that extended his fight against rookie Jean Carlos Mejia, the timing just got more absurd.
It shouldn’t have been that important, honestly. And maybe when the history of the 2021 Cardinals is finally written, it won’t have mattered one iota. Because here’s the truth: It was “just” the end of the first inning of the Cardinals’ 62nd game of the season. It wasn’t where most of the potential defining moments for the season often lie.
And even . . .
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The Cardinals, who co-owned the best record in all of baseball after a May 12 win (22-14, tied with the Giants), were in freefall. They were just 9-16 after climbing to that top spot, a streak that included a six-game losing streak, including the current homestand’s first five games. They had gone from three games in the NL Central to 3 1/2 in the division and got stuck in third place. In those six most recent losses, they had led for a grand total of three innings.
In the two-game opener against Cleveland the night before, the visiting club scored twice in the first and three more in the third to take a quick 5-0 lead. And then, leading the first Wednesday, Cleveland scored twice against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright. It was exhausting.
After his 10-1 loss on Tuesday, manager Mike Shildt managed to capture his club’s frustration and optimism in one thought. “I’m tired of saying this because I sound like a broken record,” he told reporters in the post-match Zoom session. “We’re about to break it because we’re about to get hot. We just haven’t been able to play with a lead. Game in LA. It’s hard to win without it. Us have to take the advantage, keep playing clean defense and string more consistent strikes. Like I said, we’re about to get hot. “
Back to the bottom of the first Wednesday.
Tommy Edman started with a brace, but Dylan Carlson flew away and Paul Goldschmidt pulled out. It smacked of the missed opportunity. Nolan Arenado worked a seven-length walk, though, and then Tyler O’Neill hit a single in the infield, a small number that found a spot in no man’s land to the third base line. Another seven throws at bat.
So came Molina, the 38-year-old receiver who had just returned to the lineup after missing a handful of games with a fouled knee. He fell behind in the 1-2 count, but then fouled two pitches in two strokes and worked the count to the max. Two more foul balls – a center cut fastball that he fouled directly back – led to the 10th pitch of the at-bat.
Again, this shouldn’t have been such a big moment. And even . . .
This 10th pitch was outside. A walk. Molina pumped her fist. Edman trotted home. The bases were still loaded, but the Cardinals had zero left on the board. At the very least, it wasn’t a completely wasted opportunity like so many opportunities had been in the last few games.
And then the much-maligned Matt Carpenter – owner of a 0.177 batting average (but rising) for the year, moved to the plate in his favorite situation: with the bases loaded.
He doubled. Arenado trotted home from third, O’Neill ran home from second and Molina blew as fast as his catcher legs allowed him to score all the way from first.
Just like that, the Cardinals were leading 4-2.
“What makes me think we’re going to get hot?” We have players, ”Shildt said the day before. “We have a good team.”
O’Neill’s two-run homerun in the third put the Cardinals’ advantage to 6-2. His second home run of the game came from two hitters after Goldschmidt pushed a right field fence in the seventh.
What about Wainwright? He struck out 20 of the last 21 batters he faced, the only runner to hit a pitch in the fifth. The final tally was 8-2 in favor of the Cardinals.
A landslide victory might not mean much. Momentum is always the starter for the next day, and the Cardinals still have issues, plural. The pitchers are walking – and hitting – far too many opposing hitters. The rotation, which wasn’t deep to start the season, is racked with injuries to ace Jack Flaherty (he won’t be back anytime soon) and the like. Programming is always inconsistent at best; Wednesday’s eight points have only scored the second time in 10 games that the club have scored more than four times in a game.
“We can do it,” Shildt had said the day before. “We just have to chain him.”