By Rob Rains
There might not be an official definition for “nightmare inning” found in any dictionary, but the Cardinals know one when they see it.
They saw one in the ninth inning on Friday.
Leading 2-0 thanks to Juan Yepez hitting a pinch-hit home run on the first pitch he saw in his first career postseason at-bat, the Cardinals were two outs away from beating the Phillies in the first game of the best-of-three wild card series at Busch Stadium.
By the team they got the second out of the inning, the Phillies had scored six runs and Ryan Helsley was on his way to get tests on his sore finger which could keep him from pitching again for a while.
The 6-3 loss leaves the Cardinals needing to win the next two nights to extend their season, trying to somehow quickly forget one of the most notable implosions in baseball’s postseason history.
Going into that ninth inning, the Cardinals were 93-0 in their postseason history dating back to 1926 when they led by at least two runs going into the ninth inning.
The six runs scored by the Phillies were the most runs scored by any team in a postseason game they were losing going into the ninth inning.
It happened quickly and began innocently enough, with a single by J.T. Realmuto after Helsley had relieved with one out in the eighth, retired the two batters he faced in that inning, then struck out Rhys Hoskins to open the ninth.
The jammed finger he suffered while fielding a ball hit back to him on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, however, suddenly began to bother Helsley.
He issued back-to-back walks to Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos, throwing a combined three strikes, to load the bases and then hit Alex Bohm to force in a run and end his day.
“He said he started to lose a little bit of feel for his pitches,” said manager Oli Marmol. “He felt good when he came off the first time (after the eighth), went back out, no issues early on, but said he started to lose feel.
“You’re hoping he gets it back. He’s been reliable all year. We’re aware of the issue with the finger. It wasn’t an issue early on; didn’t show any signs of it. We’ve been honest with each other all year. If he said he’s good to go, you’re good to go.”
As Helsley walked off the field, Marmol had a choice of going to Jack Flaherty, who was warmed up, or Andre Pallante. He picked Pallante, saying the decision was based on wanting to get a ground ball that could be a game-ending double play.
If the Cardinals had needed only one out, Marmol said he would have gone to Flaherty.
Pallante did get a ground ball from Jean Segura but it sneaked past a diving Tommy Edman, who was playing in for a possible play at the plate.
Another ground ball turned into another run when Edmundo Sosa beat Paul Goldschmidt’s throw to the plate. Another hit got by Nolan Arenado and the Phillies added a sacrifice fly to complete the inning.
The Cardinals will wait for the medical reports and the result of the images on Helsley’s finger before making a determination of his status. If he has to go on the injured list, he could be replaced on the roster but then also would have to miss the Division Series against the Braves if the Cardinals do advance.
“If he goes down someone else has to step up and do that job,” Marmol said. “It’s part of it. No one’s going to feel sorry for us.
“These guys all year have done a nice job of whether we win a big game or lose a big game, the next day is a new day. This will be no different. We know what’s at stake. We either win or go home.”
The stunning rally by the Phillies cost Yepez a chance to be a postseason hero. After Dylan Carlson drew a two-out walk in the seventh in the scoreless game, Yepez – batting for Corey Dickerson after the Phillies brought in Jose Alvarado in relief of Zack Wheeler – hit the first pitch over the left field wall.
It was only the third hit of the game for the Cardinals, who had missed a scoring chance in the sixth when they had runners on first and second with no outs but saw Albert Pujols hit into a double play and Paul Goldschmidt ground out.
Starter Jose Quintana matched zeros with Wheeler for 5 1/3 innings, allowing only two hits. Now it will be up to Miles Mikolas, starting on Saturday night, to do what he needs to do to extend the Cardinals’ season to Sunday night and a winner-take-all game three.
“We feel good about who we are,” Arenado said. “We’re going to go out there and compete as hard as we can and see where we end up.”
NOTES: Aaron Nola will start for the Phillies on Saturday night … Yepez became only the second Cardinal to hit a pinch-hit home run in his postseason debut. Tommy Pham was the other, in the 2015 Division Series … It also was the first go-ahead pinch-hit homer in the team’s postseason history … The Cardinals scored their final run in the ninth on a pinch-hit single by Nolan Gorman. That brought the potential tying run to the plate but Yadier Molina struckout to end the game … Friday’s game was the first postseason game in St. Louis in 1,091 days, since game two of the NLCS on Oct. 12, 2019 … Tyler O’Neill left St. Louis on Friday so he can play a couple of games in the Arizona Fall League in case the Cardinals advance and he could be added to their roster.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports