ATLANTA — The St. Louis Cardinals have no problem being the underdog. In fact, they love it.
After winning three playoff series as underdogs last season to win their 11th World Series title in franchise history, the Cardinals were back in a similar role for Friday’s winner-take-all wild-card showdown against the Braves in Atlanta.
And the results looked similar to last year. Starter Kyle Lohse provided the outing they needed, the offense took advantage of a shaky Atlanta defense and the bullpen closed the door in a crazy and controversial 6-3 win.
We’ll get to the controversy later. But first, the Cardinals and how they continue to thrive when nearly everyone continues to pick against them in the postseason.
“I’ll tell you what,” pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “When have we ever won a playoff game that we were supposed to win? It’s unbelievable. We’re the underdogs every time. Nobody ever thinks we’re going to come in and win a game and we keep proving them wrong. That’s OK. We’re comfortable in that position.”
There’s no denying the odds were stacked against the Cardinals rather severely entering the one-game playoff against the Braves. The Cardinals were on the road and faced a hostile environment of 52,631 fans.
On the mound for the Braves was the unbeatable Kris Medlen, who was 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts since joining the rotation on July 31. The Braves had won 23 consecutive games Medlen had started, a Major League Baseball record.
And oh yeah, the Braves finished the regular season with a six-game advantage over the Cardinals for the top wild-card spot. The funny thing is that the visitors didn’t seem to care about any of that.
“I hope they keep not giving us any chances,” said first-year manager Mike Matheny. “I think these guys have thrived on that in the past. I don’t think they could have been more underdogs than they were last year and they learned from it. It either distracts you or draws you together and you lock arms and band up together and realize that it’s all about what we do and what we believe. And they believed in each other.”
Nearly all of the national pundits were predicting the Cardinals to lose Friday’s game. And while those pundits had plenty of previously stated reasons to do so, they should have known better. Anyone who witnessed the Cardinals’ magical run should think twice about counting them out again. And they again showed why Friday.
A span of about 15 minutes appeared to end the Cardinals’ hopes of advancing, starting with Braves right fielder Jason Heyward robbing Yadier Molina of a home run and the Cardinals of the lead with a great catch in the second inning.
Then in the bottom of the inning, Lohse thought he had strike three against Braves catcher David Ross, which would have ended the inning, only to realize time had been granted before the pitch. Ross launched a two-run homer on the next pitch to put Atlanta in front.
But with a packed house doing the tomahawk chop and cheering with every pitch, the Cardinals did the unthinkable. They reached Medlen for three runs in the fourth inning – thanks in large part to an error by Chipper Jones on a double play ball – to take the lead at 3-2. They never trailed again, adding insurance runs on a Matt Holliday home run in the sixth and two more on a pair of errors in the eighth.
For those familiar with the Cardinals, what they did Friday shouldn’t be unthinkable. It should be reality. That’s what the Cardinals do. Down to their last strike on two different occasions in last year’s World Series, they responded. And up against the wall Friday, they came through yet again.
“Everything I saw, Medlen was the guy and nobody gave Lohse any credit whatsoever,” said reliever Mitchell Boggs. “Lohse went out there and won that game for us. Our bullpen was able to piece it together and our offense came up huge.
“I think any time you are counted out you’ve got a little something extra to prove and we went out and did that tonight.”
Things got dicey again in the eighth inning when a questionable infield fly call went in favor of the Cardinals.
The Braves thought they had the bases loaded with one out after the ball
fell between two Cardinals fielders, who got mixed up over who had called for it.
But left-field umpire Sam Holbrook called Andrelton Simmons out under
the infield fly rule – even though the ball landed at least 50 feet
beyond the dirt.
Fans poured trash and bottles onto the field in disgust, causing a 19-minute delay while grounds crew members tried to clean up the field.
Jason Motte was called on to pitch following the delay and walked his first batter to load the bases with two outs. Up came Michael Bourn as the go-ahead run but after falling behind 3-1, Motte came back to strike him out and end the threat.
As his teammates doused him with champagne in the visitor’s locker room, Wainwright paused to attempt to put what the Cardinals had just done into words.
“Against a team like that and a pitcher that hadn’t lost in, I don’t know, 1,000 straight games or something crazy, that’s a big win,” Wainwright said. “Our team was confident coming in, we felt like we were getting hot at the right time and guys were starting to click. When you’ve got some talent on your team and guys that are playing well, anything can happen.”
The Cardinals will open the Division Series Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium against the Washington Nationals, who finished the regular season with the best record in baseball.
And yes, the Cardinals will again be the underdog.
“Oh, no question,” Wainwright said. “They led the National League in wins so we rightfully so deserve to be the underdogs in that series. But you know what? We know we can play with anybody.”
They proved that again Friday night. And there’s no reason to think they won’t keep proving it over the next few weeks.