MILWAUKEE – A baseball season is made up of moments big and small, the sum of which tilt a team toward success or failure.
But in a championship season, often it is just a handful of plays that make a team a winner. If the St. Louis Cardinals close strong on their second straight Central Division title, one of those plays will certainly be the extraordinary catch by centerfielder Peter Bourjos Thursday night, which preserved a 3-2 win in the opener of a crucial four-game series.
The catch, in which Bourjos channeled Willie Mays’ famous catch in the Polo Grounds 60 years ago, is part of the dividend the Redbirds received when they traded David Freese to the Los Angeles Angels for Bourjos and Randal Grichuk.
Admittedly, the trade did not look promising when Bourjos got off to a poor start.
“I had broken my wrist (re-set with pins and screws) and pulled a hamstring. I tried to come back too soon (in Los Angeles) and I probably just should have sat out but I wanted to get back,” the likable outfielder said before Saturday’s game. “So I started slowly here.”
Bourjos spent hours in the batting cages with Cardinal batting coaches John Mabry and David Bell, working out minor deficiencies and adjusting to National League pitching.
“I had to work on keeping my bat still,” Bourjos said. “I was dropping the barrel and that caused the barrel to drag and resulted in a lot of foul balls. It wasn’t until a series in Colorado (late June) that I completely grasped the concept and it just clicked.”
The results have been remarkable. Languishing near the .200 mark for much of the year, Bourjos is hitting .360+ since the All-Star break and has raised his average to just under .250.
More importantly, the Cardinals are a much better team when he is on the field. The Redbirds are 19-6 since Aug. 1 when Bourjos starts and 12-1 over the past three weeks.
He continued his resurgence in Sunday’s 9-1 thumping of the collapsing Brewers, driving in two runs with a powerful triple to the left center field gap.
“(Bourjos) has saved us runs and has put together some good at-bats,” said appreciative manager Mike Matheny before Saturday’s game. “We’ve had conversations with him and told him we are very happy with what we’ve seen. This is exactly what we had hoped for.”
True to Matheny’s words, Bourjos ran down another long fly ball off the bat of Scooter Gennett Sunday, snagging it just short of the center field wall about 395 feet from home plate, adding to the Brewers’ mounting frustration.
What the Cardinals saw in Bourjos was a go-get-‘em centerfielder for some of the cavernous National League parks. And that foresight paid off Thursday night with the Cards desperately clinging to a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning. The Brewers had runners on first and second when a long fly ball appeared destined to at least tie the game if not give the Brewers the lead.
“I saw the swing,” Bourjos said, reliving the moment. “Neesh (relief pitcher Pat Neshek) falls off that side and I couldn’t tell where the ball was at first,” he said, explaining what looked like a late jump. Bourjos ran back at full speed, catching the ball over his shoulder as he slammed into the center field wall, causing the stunned runners to retreat.
Was he worried about hitting the wall? “I had practiced the bounces and angles out there during batting practice and had a pretty good feel for the wall. I had a good idea where I was.”
That catch and an over-the-shoulder snag of another long fly out by Jon Jay preserved the win, which led to the Cardinals adding two more games to their lead.
Bourjos said the entire Cardinal organization and especially his teammates made him feel welcome from his first day at spring training, something that made the transition easier.
“The only guy I knew was Joe Kelly but from the first day I walked in, I felt I was part of the team. I called my fiancé and told her everyone was just great.”
Bourjos finds himself a part of a potent combination of outfielders that can emphasize defense, speed, power and average, depending on whom Matheny decides to play.
“We’re getting multiple people locked in,” said Matheny.