PITTSBURGH — The meaning found in a single inning toward the end of a game that was meaningless to the standings was more than professional for Cardinals reliever Jordan Hicks and was far more than simply about production.
This he felt personally, deeply.
Hicks came off the injured list Wednesday afternoon, threw 15 pitches in a scoreless inning, touched 100 mph with eight of them and did something in the Cardinals’ regular-season finale he had not done since 2018: finish a season on the active roster. After four years of injuries and surgeries and rehab and concerns, Hicks was healthy and available at the end of the season and ready, thanks in part to that single inning, for a first this weekend — his first postseason.
“Getting out there, finishing healthy, finishing strong,” Hicks said Wednesday at PNC Park. “Even though it would have been in the playoffs, I still wanted to get out there for that Game 162 and finish on the active roster. That was very important to me. Getting tuned up for the playoffs, that’s the goal. That’s the benefit I got out of it.”
For the third time in three days at Pittsburgh’s riverside ballpark, the Cardinals took a lead, lost it and this time never gained it back. A three-run gap vanished under the wake of the Pirates’ rally against rookie Matthew Liberatore and carried Pittsburgh to a 5-3 victory. The Cardinals finished their 131st season in the National League with a 93-69 record, their first losing record on the road since 2017 at 40-41 and a division title that carries them into the postseason as the NL’s No. 3 seed. They’ll host Philadelphia, the sixth seed, for a best-of-three wild-card series that begins Friday afternoon at Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals’ early clinch of the NL Central gave them a week of games where they could not change their postseason positioning but could gain something more valuable to them at this point than wins.
Real-time reads on players put in new spots.
“We were able to see a lot of what we were hoping to see,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “You also like winning. But yeah, we still got to see certain situations that were pretty meaningful. You never base a decision off of the last six games, but it allows you to hone in and really — it does tip you one way or the other or confirm something. I felt like there’s different spots that did that for us.”
The confirmations, affirmations and revelations of the week since Champagne soaked their clothes in Milwaukee included a young player asserting his place near the top of the lineup, a rookie pitcher elbowing his way into the mix as a strong option to thwart Phillies lefties and Hicks’ health. The Cardinals wanted to avoid injury in the series against Pittsburgh — and mostly did with the exception of closer Ryan Helsley’s jammed middle finger — and they return home with the potential of a stronger bullpen because Hicks’ is ready to be a part of it.
Tommy Edman, the Cardinals’ starting shortstop entering the playoffs, received two scheduled days off during the final regular season series, and a stiff neck just added to the reason for the rest. He used that time however to reconnect with some of the work he did during spring training with his legs and hips — specifically, drawing power from them, clearing them and getting a swing that produces harder hits in the air. In spring, he would have worked in the batting cage not in the game to find that timing, and with the division crown clinched he got that chance on the eve of the postseason.
Back in the lineup Wednesday, Edman had three hits. He singled home Lars Nootbaar in the first inning and then scored for the Cardinals’ 2-0 lead. In the third, Edman doubled and then scored for Nolan Arenado’s 103rd RBI of the season.
“Benefit of taking a couple of games to really working on some things with regard to the way the hips are moving,” Edman said. “The legs feel fresh, and the legs are always going to feel better after taking a couple of days. That’s the benefit of clinching earlier. That’s been the feeling around here. We’re feeling good, feeling good going into the playoffs, getting the work we need, but also we make sure that we’re fresh.”
Nootbaar had a hit in five of the final six games of the season and scalded his third double of that stretch to lead off Wednesday’s game. As the Cardinals sort through their outfield trios and best matchups vs. the Phillies, Nootbaar has not only hit his way into a starting spot somewhere in the outfield — he can play all three spots — he’s moved his way toward the top of the lineup, especially against right-handers like the Phillies sport.
Nootbaar’s walk Wednesday was his team-best 41st since the All-Star break, and the run scored on Edman’s single his 39th of the second half. Only Paul Goldschmidt has scored more.
“We saw flashes of what we needed to see offensively,” Marmol said. “On the pitching side, we got to see certain situations come up that you can’t script. It was good.”
Three of the most prominent pitching spots that surfaced along the Allegheny River this week were the performances of Jack Flaherty and Zack Thompson in a tie game Tuesday and Hicks in the sixth inning Wednesday. Coming into the game in relief, Flaherty zipped through a scoreless seventh and held a 7-7 tie that then found its way to Thompson. The rookie lefty scrambled to enter the game after Helsley wedged his finger into the ground to catch his balance after fielding a line drive.
Thompson worked a scoreless 2/3 of an inning, slipped around a walk and in that unscripted situation wrote his way deeper into the Cardinals’ ongoing talks about the playoff bullpen.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, crap, I hope Helsley is OK; we need him, we really need him, this team needs him,’” Thompson said. “I had gotten up earlier in the game and just lucky to have been around long enough to get a feel for my bullpen routine and be ready for anything. … It might be a little louder (in the playoffs), but the game doesn’t change. My process doesn’t change. Just attack it like any other day if I’m a part of that roster.”
The Pirates scored four runs on Liberatore in the fourth inning to overtake the Cardinals’ lead, go ahead 5-3, and that’s where the game stood when Hicks entered.
The right-hander had felt a sensation through his forearm that was unfamiliar and leaving his pitches feeling less snappy as they left his fingers. The tingling did not reach his fingertips, but after the years of missing time with elbow troubles, he wanted to be cautious. What he traced back to a nerve issue calmed with rest, and it was within the past few weeks that he realized what was possible — ending the season active.
When the Cardinals put him on the roster Wednesday, his goal was to establish his fastball, throw strikes and build momentum for Friday. He allowed two hits, one on a 101 mph fastball, and got three ground-ball outs, one on a 100 mph sizzler.
“It was mainly get in the game, feel good about getting in the game and pound the zone,” Marmol said. “That’s it. I didn’t care about them getting four base hits off him as much as him just letting it rip and him feeling good.”
The Cardinals lost three of their final four games, misplaced leads daily to the Pirates and had ragged edges around their baserunning and defensive choices.
They also got regulars rest.
And they think they got several contributors right.
“Now the fun begins,” Marmol said. “We’re ready to go.”
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