By Rob Rains
Except for some bunting hung around the top two decks at a virtually-empty Busch Stadium, and a ceremonial logo painted on the grass behind home plate, all of the usual activities on opening day in St. Louis were missing on Friday night.
The Clydesdales were nowhere to be found. There was no parade of pickup trucks, with the team’s Hall of Famers waiting to greet this year’s roster with handshakes and back slaps at home plate.
What mattered most, however, was that the Cardinals played the Pirates in a baseball game that counted, four months after the sport was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jack Flaherty got the first opening day start of his career, 120 days after he was supposed to do that on March 26 in Cincinnati. The wait was worth it.
Picking up where he left off in the second half of last season when he was the best pitcher in the game, Flaherty breezed through six shutout innings, allowing only two hits, and even with a rocky seventh left with the lead intact and the Cardinals went on to a 5-4 victory.
Tyler O’Neill and Dexter Fowler hit solo homers for the Cardinals, who also got an RBI came on a single from Yadier Molina, in the lineup for a 16th consecutive opening day, to stake Flaherty to a 3-0 lead.
The 24-year-old Flaherty, the youngest Cardinal to start on the mound on opening day since Joe Magrane in 1989, needed just 65 pitches to get through the first six innings.
“He was in control of everything he was doing, pretty much a blueprint of how we want to pitch,” said manager Mike Shildt. “In the seventh he was still making quality pitches but had a few balls here and there made it a longer inning but was able to end it.”
Flaherty said he thought he might have been trying “too hard” in summer camp and tried to execute a simpler game plan against the Pirates.
A one-out infield single started his trouble in the seventh, when another single and another infield single loaded the bases. A two-out single from Jacob Stallings drove in two runs, but Flaherty was able to get the final out and strand the tying run on third.
“It was huge,” Flaherty said. “You’ve just got to keep executing pitches. I was frustrated giving up the hit but had to move on and execute.”
The Cardinals added their third homer of the game, a two-run shot from Paul DeJong in the eighth, to give new closer Kwang Hyun Kim a little more breathing room in the ninth and it turned out he needed it.
Making his major-league debut, Kim saw the first batter reach on an error by Tommy Edman before back-to-back hits producing two runs and cut the Cardinals’ lead to 5-4. Kim settled down to get a fly out and a double play to end the game.
Kim became the first Cardinal to earn a save in his MLB debut since Brad Thompson did it in 2005.
The Cardinals had gotten used to playing in the empty stadium during their intra-squad games and the exhibition against the Royals, but there was still one moment when it hit home to Flaherty on Friday night.
“It was weird, it was different,” Flaherty said. “It really hit me after the strikeout to (Colin) Moran (to end the fourth) I knew it was a big spot and it was weird. You’re used to that roar from the crowd, whatever you want to call it, after a big punchout and there was none of that. That was the part where it was just a completely different feeling.”
Being able to record a victory, however, was a feeling that Flaherty has enjoyed before – and definitely was happy to do it again.
“It’s OK to be loud, to have the same type of intensity, togetherness, it’s OK to do that even if there is nobody in the crowd,” Flaherty said. “The team was fired up.”
NOTES: Giovanny Gallegos is scheduled to throw his second live batting practice on Saturday and if all goes well could be added to the Cardinals roster on Sunday. The team purposely left one spot open on their 30-man roster hoping he will be able to fill that spot … Infielder Brad Miller, out with a sore heel, has reported to the satellite camp in Springfield to get some at-bats and the Cardinals are targeting next Friday in Milwaukee for him to join the team … Adam Wainwright will get the start in the 1:15 p.m. game on Saturday in the second game of the series.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @robrains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports