All of a sudden the season is old. One of my maxims is that in baseball it’s always early until it’s not.
In the seventh inning of last night’s game – with an October chill in the air – Matt Holliday came to the plate. And suddenly it was before us. The end of an era stood in the batter’s box to await the stylings of Pittsburgh’s Zach Phillips. Forty-three thousand stood to honor the 37-year-old outfielder who is one of the last remaining links to the Albert Pujols/Chris Carpenter era.
It had been previously announced that his option would probably not be renewed for 2017. His return to the roster and to the lineup was purely ceremonial. It was for this moment. For the fans and Matt Holliday to say goodbye to each other.
The moment became transcendent three pitches later when Holliday flicked Phillips’ slider into the Cardinal bullpen for his twentieth home run. That pushed the Cardinal lead to 6-0 in what would eventually be a 7-0 victory (box score) that – for the moment – has kept the team’s playoff hopes alive. They still trail the Giants by one game for the last wildcard spot with two games to go.
One inning earlier – with the Cardinal lead just 3-0 – embattled outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss came to the plate. Suffering through a historically bad September (struggles which have been well documented in this space) Brandon crushed a two-run home run that turned the mood of the crowd from nervous to exuberant. It’s difficult to tell whose trip around the bases was more emotional; Moss’ or Holliday’s.
The sudden offense – the Cards scored six runs in the sixth and seventh innings – jolted a 1-0 lead into the final seven-run cushion that rewarded the dominant work of emerging star Carlos Martinez. Rising to the moment in the biggest start of his young career, he struck out nine in seven innings to record his career-high sixteenth victory.
I am frequently moved by the sheer resiliency of this franchise. If I looked back over the season – or even last offseason for that matter – I bet I could find 20 different moments where it seemed reasonable to give up on this team. Much of the 2016 season was an absolute train-wreck – a symphony of horrific baseball interlaced with back-breaking injuries and mystifying slumps. I know I could produce at least 200 discreet statistics that would establish the Cardinals as a strictly second-tier team, in no way worthy of a playoff invitation. For large stretches of this season, this team has been unwatchable.
And yet, this team has persevered. The team that can’t pitch, can’t hit, can’t field, and can’t run the bases has willed themselves into playoff contention until at least the last game of the season. What you have seen is no easy task. Look to the other dugout at the Pirates. Their story is our story – injuries, brutally disappointing seasons from counted on players, etc. Yet they couldn’t do what the Cardinals have done. They couldn’t fight all the way through this long, long season to its bitter end.
With a myriad of reasons to doubt themselves, the Cardinals never blinked, never waivered. A baseball season doesn’t stop for you – it doesn’t care about your injuries or your slumps. The games and the pitches keep coming and the only answer that you’ll have is your faith in yourself and your teammates. If you are going to be the championship teams of 2006 and 2011, you have to sustain an irrational belief in your own invincibility. No team in baseball does that better than your St Louis Cardinals.
Of course, it may be too little too late. They still trail the Giants, so if San Francisco keeps winning the Cardinal series against the Pirates will matter little. There is, of course, no guarantee that the Cardinals have, in fact, turned the corner. There have already been about a dozen points in the season when they looked like they had finally turned things around.
I do have to say, though, that last night felt different. As Moss’ home run darted into the right-field bleachers, you could almost feel the oppressive fog lift.
This is still a deeply flawed team that will be underdogs in every postseason series it plays – if it even qualifies for postseason play. But it’s a deeply flawed team that irrationally believes it is invincible.
With last night’s victory, St Louis finishes the season 23-29 in opening games of their series. The 29 times that they lost their opening game, they went on to lose the series 17 times, coming back to win five and tie seven others. In eleven of those series, the Cards were pushed to the brink of a sweep (which they avoided six times). They came back to force a rubber game in 12 of those series, but only won 5 of those 12. They were 35-27 in the subsequent games of those series.
As the Pirates came into this series after losing two of three to the Cubs, the Cards will play no more series this year against teams coming off wins in their previous series. They finished the year 12-10-4 against teams that had won their previous series. They completed series sweeps in 3 of 5 opportunities, were swept only once in two opportunities (by the Rangers back in June), and finished 6-8 in rubber games against teams that had won their previous series. The Cardinals finished 46-39 in the games of those series.
Three more home runs gives the Cards 223 on the year with two games remaining.
No Post on Monday
After posting six days a week for almost six months now, there will be no post on Monday. By Tuesday morning either the season will be over, or the Cards will be preparing for their wildcard game. If the season is over, I will probably not post Tuesday either but will put together a brief postmortem before the end of the week. And then we will watch some football.