(BaseballStL) -- “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” --The Interior Stadium, Roger Angell.
It is July 20 and the Cardinals are rolling. They caught a slumping Milwaukee Brewers club right before the All-Star break and have just taken the first two games from the Los Angeles Dodgers to pull even in the Central Division again.
The Cardinal-Dodger series finale is the ESPN Sunday night game and though first pitch is two hours away, already fans are streaming into Busch Stadium in what announcers will call a “play-off atmosphere.”
Late afternoon sun washes the verdant field as a relaxed manager Mike Matheny speaks with the press from the Cardinal dugout. Out of town media thrust forward microphones and tape recorders in a semicircle around the soft-spoken manager.
He’s asked whether he’s happy to have already won the series and if he agrees that winning series is the key to winning the division.
The Cards skipper doesn’t hesitate. He says he doesn’t put a lot of stock in just trying to win a series. He says every game against every opponent is important. He talks about pushing every night. “Tonight’s game,” he said prophetically, “could be the one that decides whether we make the play-offs.”
Matheny knows that if it is true whole destinies can be changed, simply by missing a bus, whole seasons can turn on a handful of moments. Just ask the Brewers and the Braves, both of whom will spend years trying to figure out how a team that played so perfectly early could collapse so shockingly late.
In every game, there is a defining moment; a moment when the outcome hangs in the balance and all that has happened thus far falls away to insignificance. It may be a pitch, a play, an at bat, a bad hop or a blown call. The same is true of seasons.
On that Sunday night two months ago, the Cardinals carried a 3-2 lead into the ninth against Los Angeles.
After A.J. Ellis led off with a double that rattled the right centerfield wall, Trevor Rosenthal settled down. One pitch at a time, he retired the next two hitters and had two strikes on Hanley Ramirez when he let go of a 98 mph fastball with the crowd cheering and the Redbird dugout on its feet.
“I was trying to get him to chase,” Rosenthal said after the game. “I wanted to go in on his hands but obviously not that far in.”
But he did, hitting Ramirez on the wrist, extending the inning and ultimately letting Adrian Gonzalez knock in the winning run in a 4-3 Cardinal loss.
Was that, as Matheny prophesized, the game that determines whether the Cardinals enter the play-offs as a Wild Card or division champs? Or was it one of the other 53 one-run games that the Redbirds played, either as winners (30) or losers (23)?
Baseball is a cruel mistress, tantalizing and heartless; so many opportunities, so many glorious moments and so much sadness. But in the end, all of those moments, good and bad, have merely set the stage for the handful of innings that remain. No one will remember that Sunday night in St. Louis if the Cardinals defeat Arizona and win the division. It will fade to just a part of the rich tapestry of a successful season, one of many setbacks overcome. And if not, each Cardinal will for a lifetime carry a private moment when a game hung in the balance and their best effort fell short.
But for now, in the fading twilight of the season, the 2014 Cardinals will try to keep the rally alive, defeat time, and remain forever young.