ATLANTA—Welcome back that old Cardinal Devil Magic.
St. Louis hasn’t been in the postseason in almost half a decade, and yet the Cardinals worked their sorcery in Game 1 of the NLDS Thursday night like they’d never been gone.
The hometown Braves held St. Louis in check in the early innings, took advantage of Cardinal errors midway through, and nearly staged a historic rally in the bottom of the ninth. But the night ended with the Cardinals on top 7-6. “Magic” doesn’t do this effort justice, but it’s a lot more poetic than “opportunistic hitting and strategic small-ball engineering” ... so we’ll go with “magic.”
You’ve seen the Cardinals do this before. Yadier Molina rallied St. Louis past the Mets in 2006 with a ninth-inning Game 7 NLCS homer, a run that ended in a world championship. You saw the wild-card-winning Cardinals dispatch these Braves and then fight their way back from Game 6 elimination against the Rangers—literally down to their last strike—to win the World Series. They scrapped their way to three more championship series and a World Series appearance only to go quiet after 2014. But maybe they weren’t dead, only sleeping.
This was a game of three acts, and much like a magician making us believe he’s just sawed his lovely assistant in half, the Cardinals suckered in the Braves, making them believe they had control of this game when St. Louis was lurking all along, waiting to drop history on Atlanta’s beleaguered heads.
“[We have] the expectation to win, confidence in ourselves,” third baseman Tommy Edman said after the game. “We have that confidence, our coaches have that confidence, having a bunch of veteran guys who’ve been around forever—those guys set the tone, and the young guys follow suit.”
Atlanta’s Dallas Keuchel opened up with four-plus innings of pitching that showed why the Braves picked him up midseason: to give Atlanta a stable start to October. Keuchel set down the Cardinals in order in the first, allowed one baserunner in the second, and induced two separate third-to-first double plays in the third and fourth. But by the fifth, he was laboring in the Georgia heat—94 degrees at first pitch—and Braves manager Brian Snitker brought out the hook.
That was Act I, the Braves’ missed opportunity. Atlanta could only manage one run through the first five innings despite running up Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas’s pitch count early. The Cardinals manufactured a run in the fifth—single, sacrifice, steal, score—and the game hit the turn knotted up.
Act II gave the Braves enough false hope to keep the sellout crowd of 42,631 chanting and chopping. A two-run play in the sixth—Dansby Swanson hit a screamer to shortstop Paul DeJong, who forced a bad throw to second, allowing two runs to score—gave Atlanta some breathing room.
This is not how you win postseason games 😬pic.twitter.com/aRkMwKa9Kv— Yahoo Sports MLB (@MLByahoosports) October 3, 2019
And then came Act III. Much like in Houdini’s famed water tank, Atlanta’s breathing room didn’t last long, and the Braves didn’t realize they were chained up until it was too late. Luke Jackson came on to open the 8th for Atlanta, and his first pitch to Paul Goldschmidt ended up somewhere south of the Atlanta airport. A DeJong single, a Kolten Wong single, a Matt Carpenter flare into shallow left, and presto: Atlanta’s lead was gone for good.
“We’ve just got guys that don’t quit,” Carpenter said after the game. “We keep fighting. We’re relentless, we want to win every game. We’re competitors. Tonight was a good example of that.”
St. Louis dropped the hammer in the ninth, Marcell Ozuna doubling home two runs and Wong doubling home two more. Atlanta woke up in the bottom of the ninth, with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman pounding homers to draw within one, but it was already too late. The Cardinals had put the game out of reach—and with Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty on pace to start two of the final four games, the route to the LCS just got a whole lot tougher for Atlanta.
Not that St. Louis is celebrating yet—or at all. While the stadium loudspeakers played Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”—a little on the nose there—the Cardinals were in the visitors’ locker room buttoning up and packing up, halfway done with their business trip.
“We just try to play the game. We don’t get too caught up. We go out there and try to do our best,” Goldschmidt said, a quote as opaque as a closed curtain.
So what is it about this franchise that seems to make it a perpetual threat to break out and wreck standings? The players themselves don’t subscribe to the “magic” theory—that’s getting too deep in the weeds for many of the grinders in the Cardinal clubhouse—but they will allow that there’s something about the lineage of this team that gives them hope in every situation.
“You have Opening Day, [the introduction of] the Cardinals Hall of Fame,” Mikolas said. “You see those guys there, and it’s kind of amazing. You’re on a team here with [Adam] Wainwright and Yadi, and you see what they do. It filters down through the clubhouse. Guys are all go, no quit.”
The odds remain long for the Cardinals to do much more than get past Atlanta, but a couple more wins in a couple more tight spots, and you never know. We’ve seen what kinds of tricks this franchise can pull if you give them even one strike.
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