ST. LOUIS — If you’re looking for the Cardinals’ first-half MVP (not named Adam Wainwright), you don’t have to look past the first baseman.
If there was any doubt before Monday night, Matt Adams erased it as quickly as he slugged the Cardinals to a 2-0, walk-off victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium.
Facing hard-throwing lefty Justin Wilson, the lefty-hitting Adams belted a 398-foot home run into the right-field seats to bail out an offense that had been shut down by Charlie Morton. As soon as Adams made his way out of the box, he thrust his right arm into the air in a rare show of emotion.
"As soon as I made contact, I knew it was gone," he said after what he called his first walk-off homer at any level. "I just had to make sure I didn’t hook it too much, but it felt good off the bat."
Before he was mobbed at the plate by teammates, he enjoyed a trip around the bases that he said, "I don’t think I touched the dirt the whole way around."
The blast was impressive for more than making the difference in the first game of a four-game series between the NL Central rivals. It came against a left-hander who had not given up a home run this season, and it kept Adams on a roll that began when he came off the disabled list June 13 with a left calf injury. That 15-day stay on the DL, in fact, might be responsible for his hot hitting.
Adams said when he went to the minors for a rehab tuneup, he focused on staying away from low pitches and waiting for pitchers to deliver something up in the zone that he can put his power behind.
"I feel like I’m seeing the ball good," Adams said. "I’m tending to lay off the off-speed pitches down in the dirt that I wasn’t laying off early in the year. Ever since I came (back), I wanted to make sure I got better strike zone discipline. I wanted to see the ball better; that’s one of the things that I worked on in Triple A. It’s still working right now; I just want to ride it out."
Working it is. In 23 games since his return, Adams is hitting .345/.360/.679 with seven homers and 19 RBI. He had three homers and 17 RBI in 194 at-bats before his injury.
— Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals’ ace said he had the "command of an A-ball pitcher out there." Manager Mike Matheny, however, called it "one of his best games." And they both were right. Working without his fastball command, Wainwright still worked seven scoreless innings and lowered his majors-best ERA to 1.79 while turning in his ninth scoreless start of the 18 he’s made.
That said, he had to pitch out of trouble all night. He allowed at least one baserunner in every inning but came through when he needed an out. A key was controlling Andrew McCutchen, the reigning NL MVP. He came up with runners on in all four at-bats against Wainwright but failed to even advance a runner. McCutchen, in fact, made the last out in four innings, including the ninth against Pat Neshek.
— Sam Freeman. He took over in the eighth and loaded the bases, in part because of a two-out error by Kolten Wong, but managed to keep the game scoreless by striking out pinch-hitter Gregory Polanco, the Pirates’ hotshot rookie. The lefty Freeman got ahead of the lefty-hitting Polanco with a pair of 95-mph fastballs and finished him with a slider that broke about a foot out of the strike zone. The performance earned Freeman a big pat on the back from Yadier Molina as they walked off the field.
— Joe Kelly. Out since April with a strained left hamstring, Kelly emerged as the leading candidate to start Friday at Milwaukee after rookie left-hander Marco Gonzales was sent to Memphis on Monday. Kelly turned in the best of his three rehab starts Sunday night, working into the fifth inning while throwing 71 pitches and allowing one run. Just as important, he felt fine.
"The hamstring doesn’t even seem to be an issue with him right now," Matheny said. "It’s not anything he’s even thinking about whether he’s running or pitching."
Kelly hurt his leg when sprinting to first base in his third start April 16. He was 1-1 and had allowed only one earned run in his first 15 1/3 innings.
— Allen Craig. He was back in the cleanup spot because he came into the game 11 for 21 against Morton. But in a telling sign of his struggles this season, Craig went 0 for 3 and looked bad doing it. In a fourth-inning strikeout, he ducked away from a curve that dropped in for a strike and then badly missed a fastball on strike three.
— Jhonny Peralta’s luck. On a night when the Cardinals managed two hits through eight innings, Peralta had two taken away from him by the Pirates. In the second, newly named All-Star Josh Harrison made a diving catch in right field to rob Peralta and in the seventh, first baseman Ike Davis timed his leap just right to keep a line drive from reaching right field. Peralta threw his bat in frustration after the Davis play.
— Rain delays. They’re no fun for anyone, but the worst kind has to be when there’s a delay but no rain. That’s happened twice at Busch Stadium this season, including Monday night when first pitch was held up for 47 minutes. Then, after the top of the first, the rain came and there was a delay — but for only 11 minutes. But hold on. As soon as the game resumed, the rain started again and crew chief Joe West signaled to clear the field. But just like that, the rain stopped and the game went on. There were no more interruptions.