By Rob Rains
Now with one game of major-league experience on his resume, Jordan Walker has to understand one thing about the 161 games the Cardinals have left to play this season.
They are not all going to be like the season-opening 10-9 loss to the Blue Jays on Thursday at Busch Stadium.
In what almost certainly was one of the wilder opening days in franchise history, the Cardinals saw their starting catcher have to leave the game with an injury, saw the first game of the pitch-clock era take 3 hours, 38 minutes to play and saw their relievers blow leads in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
That list didn’t even include Tyler O’Neill tying a major-league record by homering in his fourth consecutive season opener, Walker becoming the youngest Cardinal position player in 42 years or Brendan Donovan becoming their first leadoff hitter since Lou Brock in 1967 to hit a home run at home in the season opener.
It also didn’t include pitcher Adam Wainwright, on the injured list, surprising his manager and teammates by singing the National Anthem, which could rank as the best performance of the day by a Cardinals’ pitcher.
What could be the most significant of all of those developments was the injury to Willson Contreras, playing the first game of his Cardinal career after signing a five-year contract as a free agent over the winter.
Contreras took a 102-mile per hour pitch from Jordan Hicks off his right knee in the eighth inning and was having trouble putting weight on his knee as he walked off the field.
Manager Oli Marmol said after the game that initial X-rays were negative, but said Contreras was heading for an MRI.
“We need to make sure nothing else is going on there,” Marmol said. “It was hurting pretty good. It squared him up on the knee and he was having a hard time putting any weight on it, let alone bending. We will check it out and see what’s going on.”
The initial diagnosis was a right knee contusion with Contreras’s status said to be day to day.
The injury came in the midst of the Blue Jays rallying from a 7-6 deficit with two runs in the eighth off Hicks with both runs scoring on a double by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., one of the 19 hits in the game by the Blue Jays, and one of the ones that was not soft contact.
After the Cardinals regained the lead in the bottom of the eighth, on a walk to Lars Nootbaar in front of back-to-back doubles from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the Blue Jays again wiped out that lead in the ninth.
That inning began with a four-pitch walk from Ryan Helsley to the leadoff hitter, followed by two hits and a sacrifice fly.
The Cardinals were then retired in order in the bottom of the ninth, for only the second time in the game, and the crazy game was finally over.
“I’ve been in games like that before,” Walker said, at different levels. “Really I thought it was two good teams fighting back to back against each other. I honestly didn’t realize it was that long of a game.”
Walker estimates he had about 30 family members, friends and former coaches in the stands for his major-league debut, and the cheers started early when Walker hit the second pitch he saw in his first at-bat for a solid single up the middle – after getting a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd when he walked to the plate.
At 20, Walker became the youngest Cardinal position player to make his major-league debut since David Green in 1981 and the youngest Cardinal to appear on opening day since Steve Carlton, also 20, pitched in the 1965 opener.
Walker’s hit made him the youngest American-born player to get a hit in the majors since 19-year-old Bryce Harper in 2012.
The game found him again later, in the seventh, when he came to bat with the bases loaded in a tie game. He was able to put the ball in play, hitting a ground ball, and was able to beat the throw to first to allow the tying run – for the moment – to score and giving him his first career RBI.
“He showed well with everything that was going on and all the hype around him,” Marmol said. “To go out there and play the way he did today I was more than happy.”
It was a game Walker won’t forget – and also one that starting pitcher Miles Mikolas likely wants to forget as soon as possible.
He allowed seven hits to the first 11 hitters he faced, giving up three runs in the first inning, setting the tone for the rest of the Cardinals’ pitchers who followed him to the mound.
“Obviously we wanted to put on a better show than we did today,” Marmol said.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports