ST. LOUIS — It had been nine days- well, 10 by the time Thursday’s game ended- since Tony Cruz had seen action. Before that, it was 12. But when the Cardinals needed him in a crucial finale against the Brewers, he was there.
“The biggest thing is doing your work. It’s not always a game,” he said, detailing how he remains sharp with so much time off. “You have to do your work in the cage, catching, blocking, whatever it may be.”
Cruz would need all of those skills in St. Louis’ 13-inning win, taking over for Yadier Molina when the starter was pinch run for in the ninth inning. From there, it was Cruz’s show, as A.J. Pierzynski had pinch hit earlier in the game.
The Cardinals would send out Pat Neshek, Carlos Martinez and Sam Freeman in extras, and Cruz shepherded them through a couple wild rides.
Neshek walked the leadoff man and Cruz caught a crucial pop bunt in his first inning, shaking off stiff legs to snare the out. The frame would end with two Brewers stranded at the corners, and pitching duties would be passed to Carlos Martinez who tested Cruz further.
“He came off the bench after a few hours or sitting around and was able to block some of the toughest pitches thrown tonight with the sliders in the dirt from Carlos,” Mike Matheny said, admiring his backup backstop.
Martinez would load the bases in the 11th, bringing the game down to Carlos Gomez with two outs. Cruz called two breaking balls to open the at bat, getting Gomez in an 0-2 hole early. After the leadoff man fouled off a 98 mile per hour fastball, Cruz went back to the breaker for pitch number four.
This time it dove into the dirt. Gomez chased, and Cruz maneuvered perfectly to block the ball and step on home.
He would repeat the impressive receiving work through another high wire act in the 12th, when a 3-2 strikeout of Ryan Braun left Jonathan Lucroy stranded at second. The flashier heroics would come at the plate, however.
“I was watching it in the video room and I asked Chad Blair our video guy, ‘how many walk-offs does Tony Cruz have?’” starter Shelby Miller said. “He said, ‘After this I bet one.’”
Miller exited the game after six innings thanks to a sharp shot to the shin from a Braun grounder. He allowed one earned run on five hits, but a fateful decision had given the Brewers a second run. With a man on first and one in the fifth, Miller fielded a bunt from Kyle Lohse and decided to throw to second to get the lead man.
“Just a bad throw. Terrible footwork. I had him out for sure and didn’t really have a good grip on the ball and it got away from me,” he said. The throw sailed into center and put two on with one out. A grounder would follow, but instead of ending the inning, it left men on the corners. Matt Clark, who was on third, ended up scoring on a Scooter Gennett single and gave Milwaukee a two-run lead.
“With Yadi telling me to go to one right there, it was a mistake by me,” Miller said of his errant throw.
He had watched the Birds come back in the eighth to tie, and found himself watching Tony Cruz at the plate in the 13th with two men on.
Matt Adams beat out a double play ball, moving to second when Peralta singled behind him. It was up the the 28-year-old third-stringer.
“Luckily I got a pitch out over the plate and stayed up the middle with it,” Cruz said. “I knew we had a good chance. I hit it pretty good, but it was kind of dying.”
He slapped a ball up the middle, past the diving Jean Segura and into outfield. Adams was tearing around third, barreling toward home by the time Gomez picked up the ball in center. The throw was late, Adams was safe and the Cards had won.
“What a great night for Tony Cruz. What a great night for our club,” Matheny said simply afterward.
The dugout emptied and the celebration began, with Cruz right in the middle of it. For him, it was a great moment, but meaningless without the other uniforms around him.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team and getting a good win,” he said. “You don’t want to scoreboard watch, but it goes on. Especially this time of year. We know what’s at stake.”
The Cardinals held their 2.5 game lead on the Pirates heading into the final nine games. The Brewers are all but out of the division race, falling to six games back. The sheer joy on the field illuminated how crucial each game has become down the stretch. It was a party nearly 40 players strong, almost all of whom had contributed to the win. Unfortunately, one of the biggest contributors missed the celebration.
“I wish I could have,” Miller said. “With my shin I took that one off. We’ll have more.”
A big one may be on the way. The magic number is down to 8.