By Rob Rains
It was back on Aug. 17, only two days after the Cardinals had resumed their season following a coronavirus outbreak that hit 10 players and eight staff members and forced a 17-day interruption to their season, that a candid Matt Carpenter told the media what he thought of the team’s situation.
“If we make the playoffs,” Carpenter said that day, “I think it would be an amazing story of perseverance, grit and nothing short of a miracle to be honest with you.”
On Sunday, Carpenter’s miracle became a reality.
A four-run third inning allowed the Cardinals to throw all of the what if’s, might be or could be scenarios into the trash can, along with a tentative flight itinerary for a trip to Detroit that is no longer necessary.
The 5-2 win over the Brewers at Busch Stadium locked up second place in the NL Central and the number five side in this year’s expanded playoffs, which will begin on Wednesday with the Cardinals playing the fourth-seeded Padres in the best-of-three wild card round. All of those games will be in San Diego.
Sunday’s game was the 53rd for the Cardinals in a span of 44 days, a stretch that included 11 doubleheaders. The word “daunting” became the description of choice for the Cardinals about that challenge that began with the players and staff driving 41 rental cars to Chicago to play their series against the White Sox to get another day of separation to try to avoid the spread of the virus.
Carpenter went on to say that day, “Not a lot of people expect a lot out of us, given the circumstances and what we’ve been through. The layoff, we’ve got guys on our roster that we’re usually counting on that aren’t here with us. So nobody’s expecting anything out of us, and sometimes that’s a good place to be in mentally, when you don’t have any expectations, and you can just go out there and play.”
Even before Sunday’s game, John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, admitted he was happy the Cardinals had played well enough to make it to the final day of the season with a chance to earn a postseason berth.
“Many times I was questioning if we would ever get here,” Mozeliak said in praising the team’s accomplishment. “In a lot of ways this hasn’t been a lot of fun with the doubleheaders, the scheduling, it’s been really daunting in that regard. These guys never complained.
“What did I feel like six weeks ago? I’d feel lucky to be where we are today.”
What the Cardinals were able to achieve on Sunday normally would been celebrated with champagne being sprayed around the clubhouse, dumped on people’s heads with back slaps and hugs occurring all over the locker room – but not in 2020.
However the team celebrated, it did not reduce the accomplishment.
“A couple of times I showed up after a series and I wasn’t sure who we were playing or who was pitching,” said Paul Goldschmidt, the only Cardinal to play in all 58 games. “You couldn’t look too far ahead… just show up and play that game as hard as you can and win or lose show up and try to do it again the next day.”
That was the attitude that manager Mike Shildt appreciated and believes got the Cardinals to the playoffs.
“To make the playoffs losing a third of your team, taking a 17-day break, having to drive to a game, it got beyond baseball,” Shildt said. “That’s accomplishments about spirit and heart and togetherness and just sheer will. It’s a great example for a lot of things in our society, how you bond together. Getting through it could have been enough but sticking to their goals of making it to the playoffs and figuring out a way to do it and finding a solution is for me beyond impressive on a lot of levels.
“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to play this year. There were days we didn’t know who was able to play. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen or experienced with a group. I love this group.”
There were two seemingly fitting moments to mark the end of the regular season for the Cardinals. First, in the team’s final at-bat of the season at home in the eighth inning, Yadier Molina hit into a triple play.
Then in the ninth, the Brewers got the tying run to the plate with two outs before Alex Reyes was able to secure the final out on a ground ball.
It was a moment for all involved to enjoy.
“Just be grateful for what everybody has done,” Mozeliak said. “Think back to eight days quarantined in Milwaukee, stops, starts, rental cars to Chicago, multiple doubleheaders … I’ve been a part of amazing clubs in my career, but I couldn’t be more proud of a group of people than this.
“The clubhouse was a 180 degree difference. It’s not even remotely normal in terms of celebration, and that’s fine. Look this team’s been through so much. They get the purpose of masks, the purpose of trying to distance. They understand what we’ve all been through is extremely difficult. I would imagine there will be a moment when everybody will get to celebrate in their own way but this was nothing like the norm. I’m completely dry.”
Dry, but happy … and tired from the year.
“We actually have two days off now,” Mozeliak said. “We haven’t had that since we were sick. I think everybody is excited to take a deep breath and then take on our next challenge.”
Here is how Sunday’s game broke down:
At the plate: Harrison Bader’s leadoff triple ignited the four-run third, which included RBI singles from Kolten Wong, Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong. One key part of the inning was Tyler O’Neill drawing a walk after Bader’s triple and then stealing second … Bader then led off the fourth with a long home run into Big Mac Land … Goldschmidt finished with three hits … The Cardinals had only one more hit after Bader’s home run, before the triple play in the eighth … Dylan Carlson moved into the cleanup spot, the fourth different player there in as many games and the sixth this season. He went 0-of-4, reaching on an error. At 21, he is the youngest player to start in the cleanup spot for the Cardinals since Albert Pujols in 2001.
On the mound: Austin Gomber allowed one run in four innings when he issued back-to-back walks to the first two batters in the fourth but stranded a runner on third … The bullpen stranded four more runners until the Brewers scored again off Reyes in the ninth.
Key stat: The Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the 14th time in the 21 seasons since 2000.
Worth noting: Mozeliak announced before the game that Dakota Hudson will undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow on Monday. The surgery will be performed in St. Louis by Dr. George Paletta. Hudson also had received a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews who also determined the surgery was necessary. Whether Hudson could possibly return before the end of 2021 or will miss the season will be determined by how he recovers, Mozeliak said … The Cardinals made one more transaction before Sunday’s game, recalling Austin Dean from their taxi squad and optioning Nabil Crismatt … Despite the loss, the Brewers clinched the eighth seed in the playoffs when the Giants and Phillies both lost Sunday. Four of the eight teams in the NL playoffs are from the Central Division.
Looking ahead: The Cardinals are expected to start Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright and Kwang Hyun Kim, if necessary, in the best-of-three series against the Padres with the games on Wednesday through Friday at Petco Park.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains and read his Cardinals coverage throughout the playoffs @STLSportsPage.com
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports