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Tyler O’Neill saves the day for Cardinals when MVP candidates have a rare failure

The Cardinals overcame the gut punch of a two-out, three-run homer by Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson in the seventh inning on Sunday night when Tommy Edman smacked a 425-foot, first-pitch homer off A.J. Minter to tie the game at 3-3 in the eighth. And then Lars Nootbaar walked and Brendan Donovan reached base when his sacrifice bunt, rarely ordered by manager Oliver Marmol, oozed under the glove of third baseman Austin Riley.

With two runners on and nobody out and MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado the next two hitters, many in Busch Stadium figured the score would be 6-3 at the end of the inning. It was, but it did not happen in the expected fashion. Both Goldschmidt and Arenado struck out, one called and one swinging, and now the game appeared headed tied going to the ninth.

Enter Tyler O’Neill, who had just come into the game in the seventh as a defensive replacement after Albert Pujols batted for starting left fielder Corey Dickerson. O’Neill had ended Saturday’s comeback win over the Braves with a walk-off walk.

This at-bat would not result in a walk-off—or even a walk. O’Neill, a central figure in the Cardinals’ September winning streak that reached a preposterous 17 games last season, hit 34 homers in 2021 and drew many Most Valuable Player votes himself. But he has been searching much of this season, both for good health and for productivity.

He fell behind Minter 0-1 and then launched a mammoth, 423-foot shot into the center-field greenery to provide that 6-3 lead, which was preserved in the ninth by Giovanny Gallegos, who posted his 13th save in a game delayed in starting nearly an hour because of bad weather.  

“It’s all good feelings,” said O’Neill. “This is the type of ball club we’re going to be playing in the playoffs. It’s a good showing for us.”

The Cardinals, who have a losing record against the higher echelon teams, thus completed their second consecutive comeback win over the defending World Series champions.

“That’s as close as you can get to a World Series game,” Minter said. “There’s no reason we should hang our head over this game.”

Edman, who also made a key diving stop in the field at shortstop, said he felt the same vibe at Busch. “It definitely had that playoff-type feel and just had a different energy in the stadium,” he said. 

Earlier in the season, the Cardinals weren’t winning games like this. Starter Adam Wainwright said, “For a little while, we had this thing where we fell behind (and) it felt like, ‘Oh, shoot, we’re going to lose.’ And we needed to kick that in the butt. I think we all had to look at ourselves in the mirror and realize we’re a good team.

“They had us on the ropes twice and we won both those games.”

The Cardinals are 20 games over .500 for the first time this season and for the first time since they won the National League Central Division title three years ago. They lead by six games over Milwaukee with 34 games left. The magic number is 30.

“We’ve got all the ability in the world to compete with those guys over there and compete for a World Series championship, too,” said O’Neill. “That’s what we intend to do, of course.”

Discussing when the eighth inning had turned bleak, Arenado said, “Goldy and I had tough at-bats right there. We both feel like we’ve got to deliver there. We know we should and we didn’t and we’re frustrated. But, getting picked up like that, was huge. That’s the T.O. that we know. We need him.

“If he gets going, our lineup is going to be good because it’s going to be a lot deeper.”

O’Neill said, “Paul and Nolan are the cornerstones of this organization and the lineup and they’re going to do most of the damage out there and take care of their business their way. I want to be that guy that’s able to help them out, hitting behind them or in front of them and just play like Tyler O’Neill out there.

“I want to be that guy that these guys can rely on, like what happened last year. Goldy and Nolan are going to carry the brunt of this lineup but however I can (be a) liaison and add to that is going to be key for my role.”

A day later, Marmol was joking at how surprised he was that O’Neill swung at a 3-0 pitch, lining it foul, with the bases loaded and the game tied on Saturday, just before he walked.

“I knew I was going to get a pitch to hit and get a good swing off,” said O’Neill, defending himself. “I almost ended that game on 3-0. These guys trust me to make the right decision up there and, in that moment, I felt that was the right decision to give that one a rip. I’d make that decision again.”

O’Neill still is hitting only .230 but has 50 runs batted in now to go with his 10 homers. “It’s tough looking at the scoreboard after a little slow start,” he said. “I feel pretty good in myself right now.”

Adam Wainwright made the 200th start of his career at Busch Stadium III on Sunday, but his quest to reach 200 career victories by the end of this season took a hit when Swanson swatted  the three-run homer. 

Wainwright did not allow this homer, but closer Ryan Helsley, relieving with two on and two out in the seventh, did, failing to get a 100 mph, down-the-middle fastball past Swanson.  Helsley, who fanned the side in the eighth, got credit for his ninth win.

“That was the spot for him,” said Wainwright. “Do I think I could have got (Swanson) out? Yes, I do. But I understand the decision and we’re bringing in the best reliever in baseball.

“Hard to argue it. but the process was good. Result wasn’t but process was good.”

It was the 322nd time Wainwright, who will be 41 on Tuesday, and catcher Yadier Molina paired as a starting battery, just two off the major league record of 324 held by Detroit’s Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan.

But Wainwright’s career win total still stands at 193, with the right-hander having only seven or perhaps eight starts remaining.

Swanson had been 0 for 11 against Wainwright in his career but had hit a liner to short in his previous at-bat. But after Wainwright’s 100th pitch had resulted in a force-out, leaving the Braves with runners at first and third with two outs, Marmol didn’t hesitate to make the move to his best pitcher in Helsley. He said would do it again, especially after the hard contact Swanson had made in the sixth.

“That made a difference,” said Marmol. “And you could see that (Wainwright’s) curveball. . . wasn’t as sharp. I don’t have any regrets, at all, at making the move.”

Helsley was disappointed in his pitch location to Swanson but was happy he put that behind him and struck out the side in the eighth. “I told myself, ‘These outs still matter,’’’ Helsley said.

“The (home run) pitch was too good a pitch with two strikes and Dansby just made a good swing.”

Edman’s homer was his 10th and ended a nothing-for-10 skid. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had as many balls hit like that this year as I would have liked. . . but it felt really good coming off the bat,” said Edman, who said he had been working on shortening his swing. He hit a 97 mph fastball, as did O’Neill. 

Former Highland, Illinois high school star Jake Odorizzi held the Cardinals hitless until two out n the sixth. Nootbaar, a left-handed hitter, lofted a fly ball to the opposite field in left, the ball barely clearing the wall and then caroming off the cheek of a photographer as the Cardinals recorded their first hit and run.

Nootbaar didn’t really see the ball go out. “I don’t know if anyone’s told him yet,” joked Marmol. “He was looking in the wrong direction, too.”

Nootbaar said, “I thought I had hit it in the general area when I saw (left fielder Eddie) Rosario’s back,” said Nootbaar. “I said, ‘Oh, shoot, now I should start running,.’ 

After Nootbaar hit his ninth homer at a modest distance of 355 feet, Donovan extended his hitting streak to 10 games (16 for 38) with a two-out single to left. Goldschmidt also singled to left, as did Arenado, whose single made it 2-0 and forced Odorizzi out of the game.

Those latter two sluggers didn’t come through in the eighth, a rarity to be sure, but there was a happy, albeit late flight to Cincinnati.

“We have to be able to do what we did this series,” Arenado said. “If we get kicked, it doesn’t mean it’s over.”

Or, as Marmol said, “Our goal is to be the last team standing. We’ve got to beat teams like the one we just beat in order to do that.”

St. Louis Cardinals Tyler O'Neill hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022 at Busch Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen,

St. Louis Cardinals Tyler O’Neill hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022 at Busch Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen,

Tyler O'Neill is mobbed by Cardinals teammates Lars Nootbaar, left, Brendan Donovan and Andrew Knizner after drawing a walk with the bases loaded in the ninth inning to score Paul Goldschmidt and beat the Braves on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022 at Busch Stadium.

Tyler O’Neill is mobbed by Cardinals teammates Lars Nootbaar, left, Brendan Donovan and Andrew Knizner after drawing a walk with the bases loaded in the ninth inning to score Paul Goldschmidt and beat the Braves on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022 at Busch Stadium.

Rick Hummel

@cmshhummel on Twitter

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