Sunday’s third game of the National League Division Series played out as though it were a movie hopping aimlessly from genre to genre.
It was a sports movie. Then, a romance. Finally, for Cardinals fans, a horror story.
Atlanta rallied against Cardinals closer Carlos Martínez in the ninth to secure a 3-1 victory in the game and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. In doing so, the Braves obscured the pages of the game’s script that told the story of Adam Wainwright in a microcosm of his career and the importance it’s brought to an organization with more than its fair share of fables.
“You’re one out away from being up 2-1,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “There’s disappointment. No question about it.
“We took what we felt was our best shot to win that game and it didn’t work out.”
That shot was aimed at Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson, who struck out facing Martínez in the bottom of the eighth inning of game one. With two out and pinch runner Billy Hamilton on third base, Shildt visited the mound to discuss the situation. The Cardinals opted to walk catcher Brian McCann – putting the lead run on base in the process – and pitch instead to Swanson, 0-for-6 in his career vs. Martínez before that moment.
Swanson doubled off the wall, scoring Hamilton, and would come around himself after a two-run, game-winning single by Adam Duvall.
“You have two outs, and we play to win,” Shildt said. “Gotta play to win the game. Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound. Took our shot. Didn’t make a pitch, and made him pay.
“It’s tough for me not to be able to close that game, a one run game,” Martínez said through translator Carlos Villoria. “Everybody has a bad day. Today was my turn. I’m just trying to keep moving forward and trying to get back tomorrow.”
Shildt implied but did not commit that, should a save situation arise in Monday’s game four, he intends to turn to Martínez, who has now allowed six earned runs in 2 1/3 innings pitched across his two appearances in the series.
“Guys have gotten us here, it’s hard to look at them and say, oh, you didn’t do something well — the proverbial ‘I’ve got your back until things don’t go well,’” Shildt said. “But we’ve also got to recognize and evaluate what we see as well and compete in the moment. And had complete confidence that he was going to be able to make a pitch there to Swanson and didn’t happen.”
Wainwright’s performance in his first postseason start since 2014 should be recognized for the award-winning performance it was. He scattered four hits and struck out eight across 7 2/3 innings. His only two walks of the game were issued to the last two batters he faced, leaving after throwing 120 pitches.
Wainwright, 38, was the oldest pitcher to throw as many pitches since Roger Clemens in the fourth game of the 2000 American League Championship Series, and it was the most playoff innings pitched by a Cardinals starter of his age since spitballer Burleigh Grimes in 1931.
“That was awesome,” Wainwright said. “The crowd made me feel pretty good walking off the mound today. I think that they poured their heart out for me today and I poured my heart out for them today, you know? It was a cool time of mutual respect out there.
“I was loving every minute of that game. It’s one of the most fun games I’ve ever pitched against a great lineup and great atmosphere at home. Can’t ask for much more than that.”
Despite speculation that his career could end with this season and that this may have been his last appearance at Busch Stadium, Wainwright said that he “never felt for one second” that today could be his last game.
“In my mind,” he said, “ I’ve got two more series to pitch through. Either we got more games to win or I got more games to pitch.”
Never shy about his faith, Wainwright shared that a bible verse from a men’s group he leads was responsible for his calm and focus on the mound on Sunday.
“(2) Timothy 1:7,” he explained. “The Lord did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of self control.”
That is the story, ultimately, that Wainwright would prefer to tell. One of faith and humble good works rather than the battle between pitchers, the love of a city for one of its adopted favorite sons, and the heartbreak of seeing a pivotal postseason game slip away. Wainwright, consummate teammate and professional, spread love in the postgame and received it in return.
“I’ll talk to Carlos, for sure,” Wainwright said. “Give him a big ol’ hug.”
Minutes later, Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty exited the room. He stopped and embraced Wainwright mid-sentence, a big ol’ hug coming back his way.
It’s another story, of which yet more will be written.