By Rob Rains
Adam Wainwright admitted that he didn’t really know what to expect on Saturday as the Cardinals took the field to play a doubleheader against the White Sox, their first games in 17 days.
“You can think about it all you want and prepare for it but when you haven’t played in weeks you are never really sure about what’s going to happen once guys get on the field,” Wainwright said.
From the first at-bat of the day, however, the long layoff – in which the team had very limited baseball activities – did not seem to matter.
Kolten Wong fell behind in the count before he eventually drew a walk in an eight-pitch at-bat. Seven batters later, the Cardinals had a 4-0 lead.
“It absolutely set the tone,” said manager Mike Shildt. “It was a big at-bat for a lot of reasons.”
The quick start sent the Cardinals to a 5-1 win and they then rallied from a 3-1 deficit with another four-run inning to complete the sweep of the doubleheader with a 6-3 victory.
Shildt said he probably could not have written a better script.
“Everybody contributed,” he said. “Team effort, the best way I can probably summarize it. Talking about writing it, that’s the way I would have written it. This is a team that’s close, socially close, but that’s the way you would want to see it. It was what we do. We do it together.”
Their first inning since July 29 might turn out to be one of the best, and most important, of the season.
“Those four runs in the first that was something that put our whole team at ease a little bit, like, ‘Welcome back,” Wainwright said. “What Kolten did, when you haven’t seen live pitching in weeks, that was pretty impressive.”
That was not the only impressive aspect of the day.
Three players made their major-league debuts: Dylan Carlson started in both games and got his first hit, a double; Jake Woodford got the start in the second game and allowed just one hit, a home run, in three innings; Max Schrock started the second game and collected two hits.
It wasn’t his first game in the majors, but Alex Reyes returned to the mound for the first time in 17 months – and struck out the side in his only inning, on three fastballs clocked at 98 or 99 miles per hour.
“Just because we were out for three weeks or so doesn’t mean we were just going to cave in,” said Tyler O’Neill. “It was a good day overall for us.”
Wainwright, the team’s most senior starter, allowed just one run in his five innings in the opener. He said he had to try to convince himself that it wasn’t his first start in weeks and allow possible excuses to enter into his thoughts.
“The team that I was playing with today and the team that I was playing against cares nothing about how long we’ve been out,” Wainwright said. “My team needed me to be great. The other team, they were smelling blood probably. I needed to make good pitches.”
Wainwright said the day, after driving himself from St. Louis to Chicago on Friday as did most of his teammates, reminded him of his summer baseball days when he was growing up.
“I thought my Mom was going to pop around the corner with some orange slices and a Capri sun to give me some sugar,” he said.
“You just have to do what you have to do. At this point you almost laugh at everything you have to do. It’s a sign of the times; we’re just in a weird phase right now. Everybody had a great attitude about it honestly. When we heard we might have to rent cars and drive up here we were like, ‘You know what? We haven’t played in weeks, we’re ready to do it, let’s go drive.’”
When the team gathered at the ballpark before the game, after driving the rental cars there from the hotel, Wainwright could sense it was going to be a good day.
“It was a lot more loose for me,” he said. “I think there are some learning moments for me here. Usually you dom’t talk to me, you don’t go near me on start day. Don’t even sit next to me. Today we showed up and an hour before the game I was having a conversation with Dexter Fowler and a couple of other teammates and was thinking, ‘This is the first time in my career in the big leagues I had a normal conversation with a guy an hour before the game.’
“I went out there and was very confident. I knew I was prepared. I was ready. It all comes down to execution at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been off.”
O’Neill said what he thought might have been the craziest moment of the last 17 days happened a few hours before Saturday’s games began – with something that didn’t happen.
“I think it was not getting a text message this morning saying we were postponed,” O’Neill said. “We were actually waking up for a game, and we got two.”
Here’s how the two games broke down:
At the plate: The big hits in the first inning in the opener were a two-run single by Dexter Fowler, on an 0-2 pitch, and an RBI single by Andrew Knizner … Tommy Edman drove in the final run of the game on an infield single in the fourth … After Paul Goldschmidt homered in the fourth inning in game two, the Cardinals put together another four-run inning in the fifth. That inning started when Harrison Bader beat out a ground ball, after a Cardinals challenge that overturned the original call that he was out. Goldschmidt singled in a run, and O’Neill followed with a two-run homer before an RBI single from Brad Miller.
On the mound: Wainwright allowed just two hits in his five innings. The win moved him past Bob Forsch and into third place all-time for the most wins in franchise history … Giovanny Gallegos struck out the side in his one inning … In game two, the only hit off Woodford was a home run by Luis Robert … Genesis Cabrera gave up a two-run homer which put the White Sox ahead in the fourth.
Key stat: The Cardinals had only two games all of last season when they scored four runs in the first inning on the road. Before their long break, they had scored a total of four runs in their previous 27 innings.
Worth noting: The players who are out after testing positive for COVID-19 are all likely going to miss another week, according to John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. Once they are cleared medically, he said the process likely will be for them to work out a couple of days in St. Louis and then move to the camp in Springfield for three or four days so they can have live at-bats for the hitters and scrimmages or simulated games for the pitchers.
Looking ahead: Dakota Hudson will get the start for the Cardinals on Sunday.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports