ST. LOUIS — The moment felt absurdly important. With every pitch Yadier Molina fouled off — four of them in total — or with every two-strike ball that extended his at-bat against rookie Jean Carlos Mejia, the moment grew even more absurdly important.
It should not have been so important, honestly. And maybe, when the story of the 2021 Cardinals is finally written, it will not have mattered one iota. Because here’s the truth: It was “just” the bottom of the first inning in the Cardinals’ 62nd game of the season. This was not the spot where most potential season-defining moments are often found.
And yet . . .
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The Cardinals, who were co-owners of the best record in all of baseball after a win on May 12 (22-14, tied with the Giants), have been in a mighty tailspin. They were just 9-16 after climbing to that top spot, a stretch that included a six-game losing streak, including the first five games of the current homestand. They’d gone from three games up in the NL Central to 3 1/2 back in the division and mired in third place. In those six most recent losses, they had led for a grand total of three innings.
In the first game of a two-game set against Cleveland the previous night, the visiting club scored twice in the first and three more times in the third to snag a quick 5-0 lead. And then, in the top of the first on Wednesday, Cleveland scored twice against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright. It was exhaustingly familiar.
After its 10-1 loss on Tuesday, manager Mike Shildt managed to capture his club’s frustration and optimism all in one thought. “I’m tired of saying this because I sound like a broken record,” he told reporters on the postgame 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. We haven’t had a lead basically in the last stretch of this homestand, even the last game in LA. It’s hard to win without it. We need to get out in front, keep playing clean defense and string together more consistent at-bats. Like I said, we’re about to get hot.”
Back to the bottom of the first on Wednesday.
Tommy Edman had led off with a double, but Dylan Carlson flied out and Paul Goldschmidt struck out. It smelled of a wasted opportunity. Nolan Arenado worked a seven-pitch walk, though, and then Tyler O’Neill reached on an infield single, a little nubber that found a spot in no-man’s land up the third-base line. Another seven-pitch at-bat.
So up came Molina, the 38-year-old catcher who was just back in the lineup after missing a handful of games with a knee that was banged up by a foul tip. He fell behind in the count 1-2, but then fouled off two two-strike pitches and worked the count full. Two more foul balls — one a center-cut fastball he fouled straight back — led to the 10th pitch of the at-bat.
Again, it shouldn’t have been THAT big of a moment. And yet . . .
That 10th pitch was outside. A walk. Molina pumped his fist. Edman trotted home. The bases were still loaded, but the Cardinals no longer had a zero on the board. If nothing else, it was not a fully wasted opportunity, as so many opportunities had been in recent games.
And then the much-maligned Matt Carpenter — owner of a .177 (but rising) batting average for the year, stepped to the plate in his favorite situation: with the bases loaded.
He doubled. Arenado trotted home from third, O’Neill raced home from second and Molina chugged as fast as his catcher legs would allow to score all the way from first.
Just like that, the Cardinals led 4-2.
“What makes me think we’re going to get hot? We’ve got some players,” Shildt had said the night before. “We’ve got a good team.”
A two-run homer by O’Neill in the third boosted the Cardinals’ advantage to 6-2. His second homer of the game came two batters after Goldschmidt poked one over the right-field fence in the seventh.
And Wainwright? He retired 20 of the final 21 batters he faced, the only runner reaching on a hit by pitch in the fifth. The final tally was 8-2 in the Cardinals’ favor.
One skid-snapping win might not mean much. Momentum is still the next day’s starter, and the Cardinals still have problems, plural. The pitchers walk — and hit — far too many opposing batters. The rotation, which was not deep to start the season, is depleted with injuries to ace Jack Flaherty (his return will not be anytime soon) and others. The lineup is still inconsistent, at best; the eight runs Wednesday marked only the second time in 10 games the club has scored more than four times in a game.
“We’re capable,” Shildt had said the night before. “We just have to string it together.”