Young, star-studded Cardinals cast powering St. Louis in postseason
ST. LOUIS — Before Kolten Wong stepped to the plate to lead off the ninth inning Sunday night, A.J. Pierzynski pulled the 24-year-old second baseman aside. The veteran catcher knew Wong had gotten a taste of postseason glory six days earlier, when he hit a two-run blast to push the Cardinals over the Dodgers, and he wanted to impart a few words of wisdom: Don't try to do it again.
"I had a nice little talk with him before he went up to hit," Pierzynski recalled after the game. "I know in that situation, obviously as a hitter, and especially at home, your first thought in your mind is to try to hit a home run."
And so Pierzynski repeated: "Base-hit swing. Base-hit swing." Wong claims he listened. But then, on an 0-1 count, he saw something he liked, and he base-hit swung it out of the park.
Game over. Bases trotted, helmet flung, mob of teammates waiting at home plate. On Wong's blast, the Cardinals' first postseason walk-off home run since David Freese's during the 2011 World Series, St. Louis took Game 2 of the NLCS from the Giants, 5-4 to level the best-of-seven series at a game apiece.
But for Wong, once the celebrations ceased, there was one last detail to which he had to attend. He needed to find Pierzynski, and when he spotted him, Wong had a few questions.
"Did I get on base?" he asked. "Was that good enough for you?"
"That," Pierzynski responded, "was perfect."
One elevator attendant at Busch Stadium on Sunday night would beg to differ. "We all need some alcoholic beverages," she howled as she piloted her occupants down, and I'd wager a good portion of the red-clad fans who packed downtown St. Louis would agree. Because for all the home runs — St. Louis added four on Sunday to up their postseason tally to 11 in six games — the thing never quite seemed secure.
An early two-run lead, on a Matt Carpenter homer and a Randal Grichuk base hit, evaporated midway through the sixth, and in the bottom of that inning, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina couldn't even make it out of the batter's box on a groundout. He'd suffered a left oblique strain earlier in the game, it turned out, and he was pulled in favor of Tony Cruz. And Cruz. Oh, Cruz. Just when St. Louis thought it had the thing won, after a pinch-hit home run by Oscar Taveras and another smack out of the park by Matt Adams, Molina's backup saw a wild pitch get by him in the top of the ninth inning, which scored Matt Duffy from second base.
The game was a rattling, rusty rollercoaster, the kind you wonder why on earth you got on in the first place, and then with one swing, Wong stopped 46,000 people from collectively vomiting.
"To hit a home run at this stage, especially a walk-off home run, that would be my top home run I think I have hit ever," Wong said.
"I knew I hit the ball hard," he added. "How low it came off the bat, I wasn't sure. I made sure to get out of the box quickly in case it hit the wall. When it got over … I lost it a little bit."
That final blast capped a night in which the Cardinals, who hit the fewest home runs in the National League in 2014, saw four different players launch four solo home runs. Each of the perpetrators was 28 years old or younger, and each had come up through the Cardinals' farm system. The longest tenured, Carpenter, arrived in the major leagues in 2011. The baby of the group, Taveras, bounced up and down between Memphis and St. Louis all season, and his play has been the fodder for constant debate. Should the (supposed) best prospect the Cardinals have churned out since Albert Pujols be given an automatic role and be allowed to grow into it, or should he get spot appearances with the hope that he earns more?
Sunday's game did little to sway that argument in either direction. Rookie Grichuk got the start over Taveras in rightfield, just as he has for the entirety of October. He's there for his glove, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny says, and on Sunday, his glove robbed Buster Posey of what would have likely been a double. He also drove in a run, justifying Matheny's decision to play him. Except, of course, for Taveras, who carpe-diemed his way around the bases and prompted Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright to point knowingly at his manager as the run went on the board. The broadcast caught the exchange, prompting speculation: Was Wainwright acknowledging the good decision to pinch hit with the rookie? Or was he implying that Taveras should be playing more? (Or was the motion completely and utterly meaningless?)
Regardless, Sunday was bigger than Grichuk versus Taveras, or Matheny versus disgruntled Cardinals fans. It was even bigger than Molina versus Cruz, and we all know who wins that matchup. No, Sunday was about the next generation in St. Louis, about homegrown players all grown up. The Cardinals still need their senior statesmen, their Wainwrights and Molinas, but when 27-year-old Lance Lynn (also a Cardinals draft pick) is looking more and more like the kind of guy who could lead a pitching staff, when Wong, Grichuk, Adams, Carpenter and Taveras are powering the offense, it's easy to see where this team is headed.
It may not be to a World Series this fall. There's a lot of San Francisco left to beat, and two supposed teams of destiny loom in the American League. But even so, if its postseason ends next week, St. Louis can look forward to more theatrics, more fireworks, more of these chilly, misty October nights. This team is a beginning, a glimpse forward, a to-be-continued. It's already cast the stars of the highlight reels of the future.