As I watched Nick Castellanos circle the bases in the third inning of Saturday night’s game, in my mind’s eye I could see the Cardinals’ 2021 season circling the drain – and for that moment, I found I was OK with it. For 140 injury-plagued games, this team had taken its fans on an emotional roller coaster ride that always ended up right where it began. At the .500 mark. After five-and-a-half months of sudden shifts of momentum, it occurred to me that it was enough. This was as good a time as any for the ride to stop and for everyone to get off.
Here was the situation. After losing the first two games, St Louis had fought its way back to a split with the Dodgers in the four-game series that opened the home stand. That kept them relevant. Now the Reds came into town, two games ahead of the Cards in the Wildcard chase. There were 23 games left – and these would be the last three with Cincinnati.
So, after the Birds went quietly, 4-2, in the first game – and with a difficult pitching matchup on Sunday – the season seemed to slip away from them in that third inning on Saturday. With Luis Castillo on the mound for the Reds, any Cincinnati lead would be tough to overcome. When Castellanos’ home run doubled the Cincinnati lead to 4-0, a deep shadow seemed to fall over the crowd.
Already three games out (after Friday), they were now on the verge of falling four games off the pace. With the very tough Sonny Gray set to throw the Sunday game, the most likely of scenarios had St Louis back at .500 (71-71) and five games behind Cincinnati by Monday morning. Most likely, by that point, trailing not only Cincinnati and San Diego, but probably the Mets and Phillies as well. Barring some kind of miracle, that would pretty much leave this team planning for next year.
Then, in the midst of this dreariness, a surprising thing happened. The Cardinals got up off the deck.
It began with the defense, when Cincinnati’s next batter – Joey Votto – leaned into a Miles Mikolas fastball and crushed it to the remote ally in right center. Based on exit velocity (104.3 mph) and launch angle (27 degrees), this blow carried an 87% chance of finding open turf. But instead, there was Harrison Bader, on the dead run to the base of the wall where he leaped and gloved Votto’s drive before bouncing off the wall.
No one would have believed it then, but the Reds wouldn’t score another run the rest of the weekend. Over the last six innings Saturday night, and through nine stunning innings on Sunday afternoon, there would only be zeros for one of the division’s most dangerous lineups. They would muster just 7 hits and 2 walks over those decisive 15 innings.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals had a deficit to overcome.
Embattled shortstop Paul DeJong led off the bottom of the third with a home run of his own. Another run promptly followed on a double by Bader and a Tommy Edman single. In the sixth inning, Nolan Arenado made it a one-run game with an RBI triple. He then scored the game tying run when Dylan Carlson’s pop fly fell into no-man’s land in center field.
Arenado would come to the plate again in the eighth with another runner on – this time against Lucas Sims. Lucas left him a slider up and away and Nolan slashed it into the seats in left. And that decided things, sending St Louis on to a most unlikely 6-4 victory (box score).
After producing a triple and a home run in his last two at bats of the Saturday game, Arenado was back at it Sunday afternoon. In his first at bat of the game (in the bottom of the first inning) he abused a sinker from Gray, smashing it off the façade in the second deck that separates Big Mac land, giving the Cards an early 2-0 lead.
No one would have expected that to be all the scoring on the afternoon, but it was (box score). After that first inning, Gray was as tough as advertised – but not as tough as the suddenly dominant Cardinal pitching staff.
Since allowing 12 runs in losing the first two games to Los Angeles, St Louis has given just 13 total runs over its last 5 games. Cincinnati only managed 8 in the three-game series. Especially heroic was the Cardinal bullpen. Even including the two Friday runs that Cincy scored to end T.J. McFarland’s scoreless streak, the St Louis pen still posted a 1.86 ERA over 9.2 innings last weekend, holding the Reds to a batting line of .176/.200/.265.
Needless to say, things look a little different now that Monday morning has finally arrived. This is not uncommon in baseball in September. Instead of circling the drain, St Louis sits one game out of the last playoff spot. They are now very relevant.
Of course, as quickly as thigs turned rosy for this team, they could sour that quickly as well. With twenty games left, there is little margin for error. Losing any of their remaining six series, could prove fatal.
At this point of the season, the only thing that can deliver them is that stretch of sustained excellence that has always managed to elude them. Perhaps until now.
The Friday rally took Mikolas off the hook. Miles still hasn’t re-discovered his form. In 3 September starts, Miles is 0-1 with an 8.31 ERA. Along with a .308 batting average allowed, Mikolas has served up 3 home runs in the 13 innings his last 3 starts have lasted. Since returning from the injured list, he is 0-2 with a 6.04 ERA.
Luis Garcia stretched his scoreless streak to 24 innings over 21 appearances with two, one-inning outings against the Reds. Garcia has walked just 3 batters (1 intentionally) during his streak, and the 13 hits he has given up include only 4 extra-base hits – all doubles. The last 88 batters to face him are hitting .153/.182/.200.
At 88 degrees, the Saturday game was the warmest the Cards have played in since they played in 90 degree heat in Pittsburgh on August 29. The last home game they played that was this warm came on August 25, when they hosted the Tigers in 93-degree heat.
The Cincinnati series was St Louis’ twenty-third home series of the year – and they have finally won their tenth. With a 39-33 home record, the Cards are 10-8-5 in their series in their home ballpark.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.