Everything about Monday’s National League Division Series Game 4 at Busch Stadium felt just a little wrong until it felt exactly right.
Busch Stadium was filled just short of capacity, no doubt in part to the awkward start time, but potentially to some degree because the Cardinals were facing elimination.
Awkward looking defensive plays were unmade in the ever-creeping shadows. Matt Carpenter received a Bronx cheer from the crowd after scooping a harmless, bouncing foul ball, and boos rained down on some combination of Carlos Martínez and Mike Shildt as Martínez entered to pitch in the ninth inning.
It was an environment just disorienting enough to the St. Louis baseball sensibility to raise questions, but as Yadier Molina stepped to the plate in the 10th inning with the winning run one base path away, things fell into place.
The Cardinals won 5-4 after Molina drove a sacrifice fly to left field, evening the best-of-five NLDS at two games apiece and sending the series back to Atlanta for a decisive fifth game on Wednesday. It was another chapter in a storybook career whose binding seems to have infinite expanse.
“If there’s a guy that can get away with murder in St. Louis, Yadi is definitely at the top of that list,” Carpenter said with a sort of awed grin. “He’s a special player, and it feels like the moments just find him. Part of that is his ability to come through in big moments and just add to an amazing career. Fun to watch.”
“The easiest thing in the world is to punt on somebody,” Shildt said.“And sometimes it’s necessary in competition if a guy just doesn’t feel or look right, but not necessary when you have guys that you believe in that you know their work is taking place in the right manner, their head’s in the right spot, you know they’ve got a process for what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”
He identified two players in particular who personified that faith reward on Monday.
Kolten Wong, who struck out in each of his first three at-bats, and Martínez, who was yet again bested by Ronald Acuña, Jr. with a leadoff double before pitching around damage and leaving him stranded. That allowed Molina’s game-tying single in the eighth, which glanced painfully, tantalizingly off the tip of Freddie Freeman’s glove, to hold up as the tying run before the win was secured in the 10th.
“My at bat in the eighth I was just trying to get contact with the ball, not try and do too much,” Molina said. “I was lucky enough to find a hole.
“We got the heart and we know we got the talent to come back any time that we want to, and I’m glad that we did tonight.”
Dakota Hudson, who started for the Cardinals and pitched 4 2/3 innings while allowing just one earned run, was in line to be a hard luck loser before the Redbirds came rolling back. An error by Carpenter in the fifth allowed the inning to extend past Acuña to Ozzie Albies, whose two-run homer would represent Atlanta’s last runs of the day.
Hudson was in the dugout with his teammates cheering the late rally and saw it unfold in a manner befitting his team.
“Kolten started that off with a backside double which is a pretty good swing. (Molina) was right there with one out and a guy on third,” Hudson said. “I couldn’t see him not getting that done. That’s the kind of confidence we have in all of our guys, but he’s one that shows the consistency in always getting it done.
“That dude’s next level. I owe that dude a hug.”
Game 1 winner Miles Mikolas was credited with Monday’s victory after pitching a flawless 10th in his first relief appearance with the Cardinals.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I’m just glad to be a part of it. Maybe in some highlight decades from now, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of me or one of my teammates, which will be nice. (Molina’s) legend will last forever in St. Louis.”
Wednesday’s do-or-die Game 5 will see a rematch of the starting pitchers from Game 2. Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz shut down the Cardinals offense, but Jack Flaherty matched him nearly pitch for pitch. Flaherty’s been described by teammates in countless flattering ways — a horse, an ace, “our guy.”
“You’ve got to keep calm and try to concentrate and try to play the game the right way,” Molina said of Wednesday’s looming task.
For Flaherty, it’s evidence of not just things in the correct order, but of inevitability. A lifetime of dreams deferred until the proper moment, which has arrived. There is no other place for Flaherty but this one.
“This is what everybody wants,” Flaherty said. “If this isn’t what you dreamed about in situations like this and to be in this kind of spot, then you just don’t want it.”
Flaherty wants it, and it could only be this way.