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The Cardinals’ new-look offense produces Opening Day win

Randal Grichuk arrived at the ballpark Sunday to find himself buried at the bottom of the St. Louis Cardinals batting order.

But the left fielder hit a two-run homer in the eighth, and when that didn’t stand up, he came through again when he collected the game-winning hit with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth.

Suddenly, all was right in the world again with the Cubs looking up at the Cardinals in the standings.

The new-look Redbirds gave fans a lot of reasons to be optimistic during their Sunday night home opener, with the club’s biggest three offseason signings factoring largely in the game that will hopefully set the tone for the season.

Starting pitcher Carlos Martinez assumed the role of team ace with the inking of a long-term deal over the winter. And he looked every bit of the part Sunday night, dominating the imposing lineup of the Chicago Cubs for seven innings.

Martinez scattered four hits, allowed no walks and struck out 10 while holding the Cubs scoreless over the first seven innings. He never looked as if he was in anything other than complete control. It’s a far cry from the overly emotional raw talent we saw in the early days of Martinez’s career. He’s become an awful lot of fun to watch.

It’s a shame that manager Mike Matheny let Martinez, with 97 pitches thrown, go out to start the eighth inning on Opening Day.

Martinez, out of gas, gave up a leadoff hit, got a pinch-hitter to pop out and then gave up a ringing line drive to put two on and two out and chase Martinez from the game.

Regardless of the outcome of the contest, it’s ridiculous on a cool night at the beginning of April to let such a valuable young pitcher go so deep into his first start of the season. Matheny, trying to ride his young ace too far, spoiled a wonderful performance and nearly cost the Cardinals a win.

St. Louis leadoff man Dexter Fowler was the only one of the big three signees to come from outside the organization.

He got a lot of credit for adding new life to the Cardinals clubhouse before the games that count even started. And he created a lot of the spark he was expected to bring on Opening Day, pestering Cubs pitchers with an infield base hit and then a walk. Fittingly, he scored the first run of the season for his new team.

Fowler plays the game with a lot of hustle and a healthy dose of aggression which are factors that Redbird rooters love. He puts pressure on the defense and causes opponents to make mistakes. If anyone still has anxiety about the contract the Cardinals gave Fowler, it should give them comfort to see the one that got away playing center field for Chicago.

Former St. Louis outfielder Jason Heyward is a better defensive player than Fowler, who is entirely adequate with the glove. But Heyward can’t hold Fowler’s bat. And Fowler is making less than half as much money as Heyward.

Of course, the big news of the day was the long-awaited and eagerly anticipated contract extension for All-Star catcher Yadier Molina.

Yadi said he wasn’t going to negotiate once the season was started. So it was very dramatic to see the press conference announcing the extension come six hours before the first pitch on Opening Day.

Molina got a nice standing ovation as he made his first trip to the plate. Then, as if to answer the naysayers who claimed the contract was paying Molina for his past instead of his future, collected a pair of hits in his first two at-bats.

Molina, going back to his outstanding World Baseball Classic, seems like a new man this year. It’s exciting that the Cardinals were able to keep an iconic player in red for the next four years. Hopefully, Molina, who keeps himself in excellent shape, will be able to continue to play at an elite level for the length of the contract.

While a lot has improved about the Cardinals’ game for 2017, they had trouble in the clutch last year, a problem that bled into the opener. The Birds were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position over the first seven innings and could have been leading by four or five runs when the eighth inning rolled around.

A major factor was Jhonny Peralta’s three strikeouts in his first three at-bats. Matheny slipped Peralta into the cleanup spot and it didn’t exactly pay off as the veteran infielder stranded three runners, flailing badly at the ball.

The other problem the Birds are trying to shake is shoddy defense. For the most part, St. Louis played well in the field. But Matt Carpenter had a huge brain cramp on a ground ball with a runner on first in the ninth. Instead of getting a sure out at first base, Carpenter tried to go to second and, by the time he realized he didn’t have a play there, it was too late to turn his attention back to the batter. That mistake allowed the tying run to come to the plate – and the next batter tied the game, stealing away a win Martinez deserved.

Oddly, another recipient of a contract from the Cardinals over the offseason, lefty reliever Brett Cecil, didn’t make it into the game Sunday. Second-year closer Seung Hwan Oh survived the shaky eighth, pitching out of a bases-loaded and one-out situation with the heart of the Cubs order at the plate. But he couldn’t pitch around Carpenter’s blunder in the ninth, tossing 38 pitches while recording five outs.

Jose Martinez, who beat out Tommy Pham for the fourth outfielder spot, hit a pinch double with one out in the ninth. Molina then became the first Cardinals player to be affected by the new rule that doesn’t require pitchers to actually throw the ball to issue an intentional walk. After Stephen Piscotty struck out looking, Kolten Wong worked a walk to load the bases and then Grichuk rifled a ball to left field to finally put the win away.

Now we have the ridiculous day off after Opening Day to contend with. But at least Cardinals fans have some happy thoughts to entertain them until baseball resumes in St. Louis on Tuesday.

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