The point Adam Wainwright wanted to make as he heard teammate after teammate talk over dinner about ways to turn the season around was how they kept using the same word, “together.”
The Cardinals veteran stood up and said if they meant it, if they really wanted to show it, then they should do away with the signal each player did when they reached base. No more of the two-hand touch to the chest and then holding out the hands apart, as if they’re individuals. If they were going to save the season together, they’d show it by interlocking those hands, interlacing those fingers and “that’s together,” he said.
It’s become more than a hand signal.
It’s an offensive identity.
After spending four months searching for the team they thought they would be and the offense they thought they’d have, the Cardinals completed two rallies from behind Saturday. They overcame an early deficit to the Atlanta Braves, first with a unifying brand of small ball and then with a show of force. Their 6-5 victory at Busch Stadium was a small step in one giant leap. With the Chicago Cubs’ loss to Arizona, the Cardinals (61-56) moved into a virtual tie atop the National League Central. Less than seven weeks after they were seven games under .500, the Cardinals have won eight consecutive and made a race of the division.
Clasp on, they’re in it – together.
“We’re seeing a group who is figuring out who they are,” said leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter. “Kolten (Wong) figuring out what kind of hitter he is. Tommy (Pham) figuring out what kind of hitter he is. Dexter (Fowler) and me coming back to life. And a team that is coming together at the right time. This is how we’re going to have to win.’
The Cardinals’ first run – conjured from two bunts, an error and an RBI single – helped erase starter Carlos Martinez’s first-inning struggles. The Cardinals’ late power, which included Randal Grichuk’s 15th homer and rookie Paul DeJong’s 17th homer, gave closer Trevor Rosenthal the needed cushion to survive a two-run ninth inning and still secure his 11th save. The Braves got the tying run to third base before Rosenthal, back with a deed on the ninth, struck out Nick Markakis to end the game and complete the longest winning streak of manager Mike Matheny’s tenure.
Beyond breaking bread together, clasping hands together, or even wondering about the talisman of a stray cat loose on the field together, the true ignition of this dog-day surge by the Cardinals has been an offense that suddenly knows no bounds.
In recent games, the Cardinals have stolen bases to generate runs. They’ve relied on situation hitting, as they did Saturday when Greg Garcia drove home the go-ahead run with an RBI groundout in the fourth inning. They didn’t trail after that. They’ve muscled up for routs, scoring at least eight runs in six consecutive games for the first time in club history, and they’ve done all of that with some non-traditional hitters in the lineup. There’s a rookie batting third (DeJong), a leadoff hitter batting cleanup (Fowler), and a slugger often planted in the lower third of the lineup (Grichuk). They all had RBIs and all reached base at least twice Saturday. The manager refers to it as “championship baseball.”
It’s more of a renaissance.
One they expected four months ago.
“A lot of things that look like what we expect to see and what the guys expect of themselves,” Matheny said. “Those grinding at-bats get us excited. I just watch all of our guys getting to a better place.”
He pointed to the first inning, when Carpenter and Pham attempted bunts for hits. Carpenter reached second on his due to an error by Braves starter Lucas Sims. Pham’s turned into a sacrifice, something he may not have done “if we’re having trouble scoring runs,” Matheny said. Pham would have tried to “drive the run in while getting him over.”
“I think it’s guys having trust in the next guy up,” the manager concluded.
With a runner at third and a chance to cut the Braves’ early lead in half, DeJong didn’t force to find a pitch. He took four for a walk. He trusted Fowler to provide. The veteran did with an RBI single. He doubled later, and since moving into the cleanup spot reached base in 12 of his first 17 plate appearances. Grichuk’s homer in the second inning tied the game, and in the seventh DeJong’s homer proved the difference at Rosenthal’s eventful ninth.
This blended offense is exactly like the Cardinals imagined at the start of the year though the order and names have changed. They wanted to be a lineup that overwhelmed teams with OBP, that crowded the bases and tested the walls. They wanted to have balance where they didn’t have one brawny standout. This month, the Cardinals lead the majors in runs (78) and hits (115). They also have the majors’ highest OBP (greater than .389) and the majors’ most walks, at 60. The next closest winning team is the Dodgers, at 40. The Cardinals entered the season expecting Fowler to be the leadoff hitter and DeJong to be in Memphis. Instead they’ve become the engines of a lineup that has different gears, each efficient. They have their hands on an identity.
“Gives us a lot of depth all the way through,” Matheny said.
That depth, on Saturday, including Martinez, the Cardinals’ revved-up righthander who has yet to find his rhythm in the first inning. More than a fourth of the runs Martinez (9-9) has allowed this season have come in the first inning, and the 2-0 lead the Braves took against him was their first in 42 innings this season vs. the Cardinals. Martinez got to be part of the answer in the fourth with an RBI single, and by then he had his synch on the mound too. Martinez’s best inning was his last inning when struck out the side in the sixth, though it took him 100 pitches to get there.
He left with a 6-3 lead and saw it threatened in the ninth.
But Rosenthal held it together.
“It’s looking like we hoped it would look like all year,” Carpenter said. “You’re seeing it. Every time we come to the ballpark we’re expecting to win and to win in a different way. When you’re like this, you’re tough to beat.”