By Rob Rains
For years Marcell Ozuna had sat at home in October, watching his friends on television and hoping that maybe next year would finally be the year he found out what it was like to play in the postseason.
He had to wait 931 regular-season games before that chance finally came on Thursday as the Cardinals opened the division series against the Braves in Atlanta.
The wait was just a little longer – until the ninth inning – before he got to experience the magic that happens at this time of the year.
With the bases loaded in a tie game, Ozuna lined a double into the left-field corner on an 0-2 pitch that gave the Cardinals their first lead of the game. When Kolten Wong lined another bases-loaded double to right field three batters later, the Cardinals had a four-run ninth inning and a 7-3 lead – just enough to hold off the Braves in the bottom of the ninth for a 7-6 victory.
It was also the first major-league playoff game for Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt, who praised how Ozuna “let the game come to him” during the critical at-bat in the ninth inning.
“You can tell he didn’t get a pitch he liked first pitch, chased on the breaking ball, and then you could see him kind of reset, not try to do too much, just put a swing on it,” Shildt said. “And he got rewarded with a nice double down the line with two runs — big swing, good at-bat, great approach.”
Once Ozuna stopped at second, he saw the excitement that had overtaken the Cardinals’ dugout.
“I saw the dugout and looking up and looking at the stands and my wife were there. And I just kind of get excited and say let’s go, let’s go,” Ozuna said. “And that’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
The hits by Ozuna and Wong capped a comeback that began in the eighth, when a home run by Paul Goldschmidt and a pinch-hit RBI single by Matt Carpenter brought in the runs that lifted the Cardinals into a 3-3 tie.
Goldschmidt’s homer came off Luke Jackson after he had to come into the game to replace Chris Martin, who suffered an oblique injury while warming up to start the eighth.
The rally by the Cardinals did not end the night’s drama, however. The Braves hit two home runs off Carlos Martinez in the bottom of the ninth before he was able to get the final out of the game.
The hit by Ozuna, who also doubled in the sixth but was left stranded, also helped erase some of the frustration he experienced in September, when he hit just .160 for the month.
In a best-of-five division series, the team winning game one has gone on to win 73 of 100 series.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams down by two runs going to the eighth inning were 32-279, a .103 winning percentage, before this postseason. The Nationals also rallied from a two-run deficit to beat the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game. In the regular season the Cardinals were 11-59 when trailing going to the eighth inning.
Here is how the game broke down:
At the plate: The Cardinals had been held to one run through the first seven innings. In the fifth, Harrison Bader beat out an infield single, advanced to second on a bunt, stole third and scored on a groundout by Dexter Fowler … Goldschmidt’s fifth career postseason homer, leading off the eighth, cut the lead to 3-2 and with two outs, Paul DeJong and Wong singled. Carpenter hit for Bader and singled to left, scoring DeJong, but Wong was thrown out at the plate. It was the first hit for the Cardinals in nine at-bats with a runner in scoring position … With out one in the ninth, Fowler also got a hit on an 0-2 pitch and he went to third on a single by Tommy Edman. After Goldschmidt walked, Ozuna came through with the go-ahead double … Wong followed with a two-out double for what proved to be the extra runs the Cardinals needed. It was their sixth double in the game … They finished the game 3-of-13 with runners in scoring position.
On the mound: Miles Mikolas survived a shaky first inning, allowing one run after walking the first two batters, before he settled down and got through the fifth. He retired 12 of the 13 hitters he faced … The Braves took the 3-1 lead in the sixth on an infield single by Dansby Swanson with the bases loaded, with the second run scoring on a throwing error by DeJong … The Cardinals used five relievers to get eight outs before Martinez came in with two outs in the eighth and struck out Swanson with the go-ahead runner on second … In the ninth, a leadoff walk got Martinez in trouble. Ronald Acuna Jr. homered and with one out Freddie Freeman also homered to make it a one-run game before Martinz retired Josh Donaldson on a groundout and struck out Nick Markakis.
Key stat: Arguably the two biggest hits in the ninth inning, the single by Fowler that started the rally and the double by Ozuna, both came on 0-2 pitches. During the regular season, the Cardinals collectively had a .139 average on 0-2 counts. Ozuna had six hits in 36 at-bats and Fowler had just three hits in 41 at-bats.
Worth noting: Of the 25 players on the Cardinals’ roster for the series, 16 of them had never played in the postseason. That included nine of the 12 pitches, with only Adam Wainwright, Andrew Miller and Martinez having been in previous playoff games … Bader’s stolen base was the first allowed by Dallas Keuchel since June 16 of last season … Errors by Wong and DeJong helped the Braves score two of their first three runs. The Cardinals’ infielders combined had made only four errors in all of September … This was the first time this year Mikolas had walked the first two batters of the game … It also was the third time in Martinez’s career that he allowed two homers in an inning. The last time was on Aug. 30, 2017. He had allowed only two homers in 48 innings in the regular season … Wong was playing his first game since Sept. 19, having missed the last nine games of the regular season with a strained hamstring.
Looking ahead: Jack Flaherty will get the start for the Cardinals in the second game of the series on Friday as he tries to pitch the Cardinals to a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports