It was difficult to tell who said it first and it might have been five or six different teammates at once, because that’s how innings usually start inside the Cardinals’ dugout.
Rookie Brendan Donovan heard it sometime after he grabbed his helmet and somewhere before he left the dugout to lead off the ninth inning Wednesday at Busch Stadium. Get on base. Just get on base. Grind out an at-bat. Anything can happen. The Cardinals had been quiet for eight innings, had played a lousy eighth inning, and trailed by four runs going into the ninth against Washington, the club with worst record in the majors. The dugout chatter remained the same.
Get on base. Just get on base. Grind out an at-bat.
Anything can happen.
And then it did.
Donovan singled on the third pitch of his at-bat.
“There’s a sense of hope,” third baseman Nolan Arenado said.
What followed Donovan’s leadoff single was Arenado’s double, a pivotal walk by Tyler O’Neill, and a reviving RBI single from Yadier Molina. The eighth batter of the inning, Tommy Edman, delivered a two-run, two-out double that he could not quite see over the outstretched glove of Washington’s left fielder. Spoiler: His teammates rushing toward him gave away the ending. The Cardinals scored five runs, three of them with two outs, to yank an unlikely 6-5 victory up from the dregs of the first eight innings. They became the first home team this season to win a game when trailing by four or more runs in the bottom of the ninth.
Visitors had been 817-0 this season with at least that lead, per ESPN research.
Unfazed by such deficits, the Cardinals believe what’s true in a game can also be true in the standings. With a 9 ½-game lead in the National League Central, they’ve shifted their gaze to a higher peak – overtaking the Mets and Braves for a first-round bye in the postseason.
“That would be huge,” Arenado said. “That’s kind of all we’ve been thinking about lately. I know we want to win the division. We’re up a few games. We’re really focused on getting that two seed. That’s our focus. Our focus is to win as many ballgames and see where we end up.”
The Mets and Braves, dueling for the NL East crown, have a five-game lead on the Cardinals for the No. 2 berth into the NL playoffs. The Dodgers, cruising to another division title, and the team with the second-best record in the NL will advance directly to a best-of-five National League Division Series, skipping the best-of-three wild-card round. The Mets swept a doubleheader from the Pirates to inch ahead of the Braves in that division race.
The two NL East rivals have only three games remaining against each other, none vs. the Cardinals. So, the Cardinals will need help to climb any higher than the third seed.
Anyone want to tell they cannot pull off the improbable after what they did Wednesday?
“That was an interesting game the way it played out,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “Really mad to really happy.”
The Cardinals threatened to squander another superb start by lefty Jordan Montgomery. The starter made 97 pitches with either a scoreless game or a one-run lead to hold, and he did not give up that lead until his 98th and final pitch. What could have been a rulebook double if it bounced a few inches higher was instead a game-tying triple off the wall as Washington answered Paul Goldschmidt’s solo homer for a 1-1 knot. In the eighth inning, the Cardinals came unraveled. Scour the box score and there isn’t an error in there, but there were several misplays on the field. Two poorly handled fielding chances and one wild pitch paired with Luke Voit’s mammoth home run for Washington’s four-run inning and a 5-1 lead.
That’s where the score stood when Nationals right-hander Kyle Finnegan took the mound.
Donovan seized his bat.
Edman found a seat with a view of the pitcher.
“There’s zero panic in that dugout,” Donovan said. “Whether we are up by five or down by five, it is let’s get someone on base. Let’s get someone on base. Anything can happen. Somebody gets on. Somebody hits a ball in a gap. Somebody dribbles one in for a knock. It doesn’t matter. Guys on base create havoc. Let’s grind out an at-bat. It’s a snowball effect from there.”
“We know how to work an at-bat when we need them,” Arenado said.
Donovan saw a first-pitch sinker. He put a 1-1 splitter in play off the third baseman and toward left field for a single. Goldschmidt saw a first-pitch sinker for a ball and worked a seven-pitch walk. Arenado saw a first-pitch sinker. He lashed the second pitch he saw for an RBI double that hopped over the sidewall in right-field to score Donovan and leave two runners in scoring position. Corey Dickerson saw a first-pitch sinker and grounded out on the third pitch to score Goldschmidt and make it a two-run game. Four batters saw four first-pitch sinkers and the Cardinals had already scored two runs.
Edman habitually retrieves his helmet and batting gloves four batters ahead of his at-bat. He was doing that as O’Neill fell behind 0-2 on back-to-back sliders from Finnegan.
O’Neill ignored the next three pitches.
He fouled off a slider to get the count full before earning a seven-pitch walk and getting the tying run on base with one out.
“To get from 0-2 there and then draw that walk?” Marmol said. “I mean, that was a real at-bat and allows us to do what we did in that ninth. That was probably one of my favorite at-bats right there.”
As Edman, helmet on, stood on the top step of the dugout rookie Nolan Gorman struck out. As Edman stepped to the on-deck circle, Molina lashed a live-drive single to left to put the tying run in scoring position and the winning run at first.
As rookie Ben DeLuzio pinch-ran for Molina, Edman reached the plate.
That time watching Finnegan face the first four hitters of the inning gave him a plan.
“Since we were down four runs everybody was kind of being patient early, taking a strike,” Edman said. “I knew that he threw a ton of first-pitch fastballs for strikes. So once we had that tying run on second I definitely don’t want to take that first pitch fastball right down the middle. So, I was trying to be ready from the start.”
Edman jumped the first pitch he saw from Finnegan – a 97.7 mph sinker on the edge of the plate. He drove it to left field, where Alex Call gave case. Call reached up, and his glove obscured Edman’s view of whether he caught the ball for the final out or not. Edman described that moment as “confusing” and then exciting. He needed the reaction of the crowd and his teammates to know that Call did not answer with a catch.
DeLuzio scored swiftly from first to push the Cardinals to 25 games better than .500, to at least 81 wins for the 15th consecutive season, to thinking they can strive to be more than NL Central champs.
“We’ve got our eyes on the standings a little bit,” Edman said. “We could have very easily kind of just caved in that last inning. But that’s the type of team that we have. We have guys who are resilient and are not going to quit, regardless of score. I think that’s something that is going to crazy us through the end of the season.”
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