There they were. Standing over their fallen teammate in the outfield. Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter and Peter Bourjos looked like a ton of bricks just fell on their shoulders. Stephen Piscotty was down and out, barely moving after a collision with Bourjos in the 7th inning of Monday’s hotly contested series opener. After being carted off the field on a stretcher and giving the proverbial “I’m okay” wave, Piscotty’s absence hung over a team that came into the game with a MLB best 98 wins but seemed bruised and removed from competition for the moment. An hour later, they had a piercing 3-0 win that trimmed the magic number to 2. The Cardinals are officially the toughest team in baseball. They take hits and seem to move faster and more efficiently than before.
There was Mark Reynolds pumping his fist after a two run home run that silenced PNC Park even more than the Piscotty collision did and even elicited some boos. His blast emptied the lower levels of the ballpark and stamped a expiration date on the chances of the Bucs catching the Cardinals. Monday night showed baseball fans why the game can be so frustrating and uplifting at the same time.
It wasn’t pretty. The Cardinals tried to lose the game multiple times. They gave the Pirates ten walks, free passes to score. The Pirates loaded the bases four times and couldn’t score. This was the ugliest shutout in recent memory. Lance Lynn, the up and down rotation cheddar dispenser, gritted his teeth for five stout pressurized innings. He escaped jams with pop ups, strikeouts and amazing defense that included a Jason Heyward assist in the second inning. Heyward’s cannon shot from center field to nab the Pirates risky attempt at an early lead seemed to swing things back in the Cardinals direction. It’s just the following events didn’t play out that way.
Pirates starter J.A. Happ(owner of one of the best earned runs averages in baseball since coming over from Seattle) shut the Cards down for six innings. A maddening stretch that totaled 13 innings of shutout baseball over two starts from Happ on the Cards. When he left, it felt like Sandy Koufax was taking a holiday. Okay, maybe not, but the man was dealing.
The Pirates bullpen, one of two teams with a better ERA than the Cards’ backend arms, denied the Cards access for two more innings before the 9th inning. Mark Melancon, owner of 50 saves and a build that reminds me of Ken from Street Fighter, took the mound and quickly dispatched Greg Garcia on a strikeout. His cutter, which he picked up from Mariano Riveria in New York, was filthy and was causing roadblocks in the Cards lineup all season. He was the slightly less hopeless divisional rival behind Aroldis Chapman. Matt Carpenter poked a single to right center. Jon Jay followed with a seeing eye single that caused Gregory Polanco to fumble it and Andrew McCutchen to also mishandle it, allowing Carpenter to score from first base. Reynolds followed with the smoker and it was time for Rosenthal.
Following back to back outings of serving up heartbreaking losses, Rosenthal immediately lit fires around the hearts of Cardinal Nation in the 9th inning. He walked Cutch and then Starlin Marte got a single. Neil Walker came up and seemed to take a 20 minute at bat, which nearly ended with a groundout but Walker pleaded with the umps that he fouled it off his foot. Too bad he faked it by hobbling on the wrong foot. Rosenthal blew him away with a 98 mph heater tailing away to send him walking back to the dugout. Francisco Cervelli lined out to Heyward and then it was Aramis Rameriz, the famous Cardinal killer nicknamed the Sith Lord by my good friend Daniel Shoptaw. Rameriz lined out. It was over.
The Cardinals crossed Heartbreak Ridge again with a narrow victory that looked more like 3 to 2.5 plus blood, sweat and tears rather than a 3-0 shutout. Rosenthal picked up his 48th save, which gives him the single season record for a Cardinal. He did so in classic Jason Isringhausen fashion, putting runners on and playing with St. Louis fans blood pressures and nerve endings. Would we have it any other way? Don’t answer that.
With a win Tuesday, the Cardinals would collect win #100 and clinch the National League Central division. It’s that close, ladies and gentlemen. The worries of a long hard 162 season coming down to one last win. The mark seems more special this year due to the numerous injuries and setbacks.
The Cardinals have been dealing with loss since last October, when the team lost young phenom Oscar Taveras in a brutal drunk driving related car accident. The death rocked Taveras’ best friend, Carlos Martinez and the clubhouse. In March, Tommy Pham injured his quad in spring training. Jaime Garcia went down in March also with a leg injury, not returning until May 21st. In April, Adam Wainwright and Jordan Walden went down. In May, Matt Adams tore his quad. In June, Matt Holliday tore his quad. Jon Jay was injured for the majority of the season. Reliever Matt Belisle missed 2.5 months. Randal Grichuk injured his elbow in August. Now Piscotty goes down. The Cardinals just keep winning, making this 2015 group a truly special band of brothers.
Word on Piscotty is all tests for concussion and other head related injuries came back negative, meaning the kid will be sore today but otherwise escaped a more drastic setback. Finally, a bit of luck for the Birds.
Tonight, it’s Michael Wacha and Charlie Morton, a matchup heavily favoring the Cardinals, which is why you should expect a 1-1 game in the 9th inning. With this team, anything is possible. They take “You Never Know” to a whole new level.
As Joe Buck said in 2011, “What a team. What a ride.” I have a feeling this October will be even more memorable. Stay tuned for more roller coaster theatrics.