It was as if the ghost of Tony La Russa visited the Cardinals’ dugout, whispering, “Play a hard nine,” in everyone’s ears.
Just when the Cardinals’ season appeared on the verge of collapse, the team responded Saturday with one of its most stirring triumphs of the season, a 10-9 victory over the Nationals.
The Cardinals had been outscored in their previous games, 32-1. They had just lost shortstop Rafael Furcal to an elbow injury that will sideline him 4 to 6 weeks. Almost to a man, they looked beaten, worn out.
You wouldn’t have known it Saturday.
The Cardinals’ energy was noticeable from my position next to their dugout for MLB on FOX. So was the resilience that became the trademark of La Russa’s teams, and could very well come to define Mike Matheny’s.
Right-hander Kyle Lohse pitched into the sixth inning after allowing six runs in the first two. Left fielder Matt Holliday recovered from a two-run error to crush a two-run homer. Center fielder Jon Jay had three hits, reached base four times and made two spectacular catches.
And there was more.
First baseman Matt Carpenter, after suffering an injured right ankle during fielding drills Thursday, made a seemingly miraculously recovery, started at first base and hit a huge three-run double to put the Cardinals ahead in the fourth.
Pinch-hitter Shane Robinson drew a leadoff walk to start the Cardinals’ final comeback in the eighth. Pinch-hitter Carlos Beltran followed with a one-out, game-tying single. Third baseman David Freese, after earlier hitting a two-run homer and double, delivered the go-ahead hit after right fielder Allen Craig stole only his second base of the season in the ninth.
Freese, the MVP of the 2011 World Series, told me just before our postgame interview, his uniform covered in dirt, “That was like a playoff game.” The Cardinals trailed 4-0 and 6-2. They blew an 8-6 lead. But in the end, they prevailed.
I’m not sure they will hold onto the second wild card; virtually all of their older players are worn down or broken down, and their injuries could prove too much to overcome.
Right-hander Chris Carpenter, 37, has yet to throw a pitch since Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Furcal, 34, likely is out until next season. First baseman Lance Berkman, 36, has appeared in just 28 games. Beltran, 35, is batting .219 with a .693 OPS since the All-Star break.
Even young players such as Freese have struggled; Freese, 28, has played in 120 games, his most since 2008, and batted .213 with a .600 OPS in August. The loss of Furcal, meanwhile, will compromise the Cardinals defensively when Daniel Descalso plays short and offensively when Pete Kozma is the starter.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, in particular, loom as a threat for the second wild card. But as Freese pointed out after the game, the Cardinals were in an even worse position at this time last season, and look what happened.
This year’s club leads the National League in runs scored and boasts the third-best run differential in the majors, but remains something of an enigma, trailing the Cincinnati Reds by 8 1/2 games in the NL Central.
As always, the Cardinals are undaunted.
They’re the defending World Series champions. And on Saturday, they again made it clear: They’re going to fight.
The Cardinals love Lohse, but almost certainly will lose him.
Lohse, who turns 34 on Oct. 4, will be one of the top starting pitchers on the free-agent market, and the Cardinals aren’t terribly interested in signing him long-term.
The team already has Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn under control next season. It also has a number of pitching prospects coming — Trevor Rosenthal, who currently is in the majors as a reliever, plus Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha.
Westbrook recently agreed to a one-year, $9.75 million extension, but Lohse should do far better than that on the open market. At the moment, he has the best ERA of any of the top potential free-agent starters.
BRYCE BOUNCING BACK
No, the Nationals’ Bryce Harper isn’t as good as the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout. And no, he doesn’t deserve the NL Rookie of the Year over the Cincinnati Reds’ Todd Frazier.
Harper, though, is again getting hot — he’s 8-for-18 with three homers in his last four games after batting .214 with a .603 OPS from June 13 to Aug. 28. And his all-out baserunning remains something to behold.
Nationals third base coach Bo Porter told me a few days ago that Harper was hitting “the hardest .250 in baseball.” Harper, though, doesn’t want to hear such talk. He’s never satisfied with his performance. He would think he could do better even if he was hitting .350.
By the way, Nats manager Davey Johnson said that Harper’s current revival stemmed from a suggestion by Rick Eckstein, whom Johnson called, “the best hitting coach in baseball.”
Harper swings violently, using his entire body. Eckstein told him that he needed to slow down with his lower half.
Harper, mind you, is still swinging hard.
“But less hard,” Johnson said with a smile.
WERTH PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION
The Nationals’ Jayson Werth, 33, is married with two sons, and he had his older boy, Jackson, 10, with him during batting practice the past two days.
Why is this notable?
Because Werth told me, only half-kidding, that he is looking for one of his sons to become the first fourth-generation big leaguer.
The competition, though, is stiff.
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Jerry Hairston Jr. and his brother, the New York Mets’ Scott Hairston, have three boys between them. Former major leaguers Bret and Aaron Boone also have sons.
Werth is the grandson of Ducky Schofield and the stepson of Dennis Werth. Dick Schofield was Jayson’s uncle.
SUZUKI: LEARNING FAST
Catcher Kurt Suzuki was thrust into a difficult spot when the Nationals acquired him from the Oakland Athletics on Aug. 3, needing to learn a new pitching staff in a new league in the middle of a pennant race.
Suzuki said he is most uncomfortable when the Nationals face an opponent that he hasn’t seen.
A catcher can watch video and study scouting reports, he said, but the only way for him to truly learn an opponent’s tendencies is by playing the game.
One advantage: Suzuki was teammates with Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez in Oakland. Gonzalez has eased Suzuki’s transition, praising his game-calling to the Nats’ other pitchers, giving them immediate confidence in his ability.
HE PLAYS SECOND, HE HAS TO HIT!
The Nats’ Danny Espinosa puts a lot of pressure on himself, knowing that second base has evolved into an offensive position. So, it made sense that he emerged from a season-long slump while playing shortstop when Ian Desmond was injured.
“The heck with this,” Espinosa said he told himself. “I’m just going to go up there and hit and not worry anymore.”
It was actually easier to do that playing short, Espinosa said, because he was so focused on his defense. He was hitting .239 with a .701 OPS on Aug. 6, but has batted .287 with an .811 OPS since.
His home run Saturday was his 15th of the season. He hit 21 a year ago.
Not bad for a second baseman.
ROOMMATES, TEAMMATES, RELIEVERS
Nationals closer Tyler Clippard and setup man Drew Storen have shared an apartment in Washington ever since May 2010, when Storen was promoted to the majors.
A third Nationals reliever, Craig Stammen, initially lived with them — and was the neatest of the group. Storen said that he and Clippard are equally messy; the difference is that once in a while, Storen actually cleans up.
Here’s the amazing part: There is no tension, no jealousy, between the two relievers, even though Clippard now has Storen’s old job as the Nationals’ closer.
Storen says that he wasn’t ready to resume closing coming off an elbow injury, and adds that he couldn’t be happier for Clippard, who he felt was overlooked as a setup man.
I was one of at least three Rosenthals working Saturday’s game. The others were Matt Rosenthal, the Nationals’ visiting clubhouse manager, and Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals’ rookie reliever.
Trevor, though, is the only one who has the word, “Rosenthal” tattooed across his back — and the only one who throws 98 mph.
“I don’t think Mitchell Boggs and I are the hardest throwers here anymore,” Cardinals closer Jason Motte said.
By the way, none of the Rosenthals is related. If Trevor and I had been in the same family, maybe my career wouldn’t have peaked when I was 6 years old.