Home Sports Comeback Cards overcome early wobbles with late power surge

Comeback Cards overcome early wobbles with late power surge

St. Louis Cardinals vs Atlanta Braves, Game 1 NLDS in Atlanta

St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong gestures to the bench after he doubled driving in what would be the winning runs in the top of the ninth inning during Game 1 of the National League Division Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park in Atlanta on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

David Carson

ATLANTA — As the strengths that kept them grounded all season shifted beneath their feet and slipped from their grip, the most inconsistent part of the Cardinals’ game, the one they could count on the least all summer, came to their rescue Thursday in the nick of the ninth.

Playoff rookie Marcell Ozuna and Kolten Wong each swatted a two-run double to take and widen the Cardinals’ lead in what became a 7-6 victory over Atlanta in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

When the Cardinals’ defense, the rock on which they built a contender, quaked early at SunTrust Park for a couple of errors, the offense came through late to overcome those mistakes. When closer Carlos Martinez fumed and teetered toward tilt in the ninth, the offense gave him just enough cushion to tempt trouble, twice. The anchor that restrained them all season from sailing away in the division, the lineup kept them steady in the choppiest of games.

“We’ve got what you need,” starter Miles Mikolas said. “We need some runs. We got runs. We need some defense. We got some defense. We need some timely outs, pitching-wise? We need punch-outs. We got punch-outs.

“St. Louis Cardinals,” he added with an adman’s flair. “We have got what you need.”

Trailing by two with two innings to play, the Cardinals got a game-tying, pinch-hit single from Matt Carpenter. Their final 15 batters produced six runs to tie the game, take the lead, and withstand whatever the Braves threw at them in the ninth. A couple of slick plays by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and just enough steely pitches from Martinez cinched the win.

Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015, the Cardinals stole home-field advantage in the best-of-five series and now have ace Jack Flaherty set to pitch two of the remaining four games in the series, including Friday’s Game 2.

The Cardinals ended September with quantifiably the best defense in the majors and statistically the meekest offense of any postseason team. More than the calendar page flipped.

The Braves took an early lead and retook it in the sixth with three runs that got their start from Cardinals errors. Wong misplaced a flip in the first that allowed a run to score, and in the sixth a hard grounder ricocheted off third baseman Tommy Edman and to shortstop Paul DeJong. Rushing to find an out somewhere, DeJong skipped his throw and Wong couldn’t glove it at second.

The ball didn’t leave the infield, but Atlanta scored twice for a 3-1 lead.

Through seven innings, the lonely run the Cardinals scored came on a groundout and needed a sacrifice bunt and a stolen base to even get to third. Harrison Bader got an infield single on a ball that didn’t get past the mound. He took second on Mikolas’ sacrifice bunt and swiped third on Dallas Keuchel’s indifference. Dexter Fowler brought him home for a briefly tied game.

The Cardinals would go bigger to get home later. That started with Paul Goldschmidt’s leadoff homer in the eighth inning. The Braves counted on Chris Martin to face Goldschmidt with the two-run lead, but with Goldschmidt in the box Martin’s oblique tightened. Enter Luke Jackson. Exit homer. Goldschmidt drilled a ball to the top row of the Hank Aaron Terrace.

Five batters and two singles later, Carpenter got a pinch-hit at-bat against Braves closer Mark Melancon — the kind of at-bat he’d been promised.

“One big at-bat for the game,” Carpenter said.

He delivered a single to left to tie the game.

The Cardinals opted not to force the Braves to pinch-hit for Melancon in the bottom of the eighth, and that allowed the closer to return for the ninth. The Cardinals capitalized. The first five batters of the inning reached against Melancon. Four scored.

Ozuna added his second double of the game, Goldschmidt his second run of the game, and Wong his second hit. The Cardinals turned one homer, two doubles, one steal, a sac bunt, a handful of singles and a walk into seven runs. Pretty resourceful.

“When our offense has played well, we’ve won a lot of games,” Goldschmidt said. “Our pitching has really carried us the entire year, and the offense has been inconsistent I would say. So I think if we can play well offensively it can help our chances. Players are tough. We’ve got to win tight games. We’ll try to win any way we can.”

As he warmed up for the first North American playoff start of his career, Mikolas heard that the pregame show had raved about how stingy he is with the walks.

Naturally, he walked the first two batters.

“Here we go,” he said. “Let’s do our best not to let the wheels fall off.”

The righthander did by retiring 12 of the final 13 batters he faced to shepherd the game through five innings. Tyler Webb pitched around an error, and a relay of three more relievers got the tie game to Martinez.

Two batters into the ninth, Martinez had issues — and took issue with the Braves’ flamboyant leadoff hitter, Ronald Acuna Jr. The kinetic talent had earlier turned a surefire double into a costly single with some premature celebration. After Martinez walked the leadoff batter of the ninth, Acuna clubbed a two-run homer to begin the Braves’ unsuccessful rally. Acuna added some sizzle to his tour of the bases, and Martinez did not dig that jazz.

During a meeting on the mound, Martinez appeared to be yelling through catcher Yadier Molina toward the Braves’ dugout. Martinez would allow a 460-foot homer to Freddie Freeman to inch the Cardinals’ lead down to a run before he struck out Nick Markakis looking at a called strike 3. Upon reaching Molina for the celebratory handclasp, Martinez turned as if to shout back at the Braves’ dugout.

Molina gripped the closer and literally pulled him under his arm.

Credit the catcher with the save.

“Carlos is a passionate guy,” Molina said. “He takes everything hard. I was just trying to calm him down after the game. That’s what I was doing. Just trying to calm him down.”

That’s ultimately what the offense did — purchase enough insurance to wait for the Cardinals’ game to calm down. The uppity defense chilled for a couple of key plays in the ninth that kept Freeman’s homer from being a game-tying homer. Mikolas found his groove after a lengthy first to retire six batters on 25 pitches in the third and fourth. And Martinez, gifted a four-run head start, lost most of it, but not all of it, and with help kept his head.

To be continued.

“At this point in the season, in the playoffs, I think we’re past doubts,” Mikolas said. “We’re gritting our teeth and we’re going to go out and get it. We’re going to go out and take it.”

Cardinals vs. Braves photos

Keep up with the latest Cardinals coverage from our award-winning team of reporters and columnists.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.