ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Saturday’s Cardinals looked like they were playing spring ball which, in this case, was great news.
Just like they had in exhibition play, the Birds did a little bit of everything in game two against Chicago. They notched eight hits, including a pair of doubles and a homer (Jedd Gyorko’s 7th). They played sharp defense and rode a strong start from Carlos Martinez to win number 20. Most important, they ran like the dirt was on fire.
“Run. That was our approach. Get a big lead, and run,” said Tommy Pham.
Cubs starter Jon Lester provides teams a unique opportunity to run, even with rocket-armed Wilson Contreras behind the plate. His inability to reliably throw to bases is a bag-stealer’s dream, and if a team leverages it correctly, they put unrelenting pressure on Lester and his defense.
“I loved how the guys did their research and had their ideas of what they wanted to do when they got out there. Then they tried to put it into motion,” manager Mike Matheny said.
The Cardinals attempted four steals, two of which worked (Pham and Yadier Molina). Even the two failed attempts had an effect. Every inning, every time a man was on base, the threat was present. Any pitch could be a steal attempt, because any runner has a chance.
“Trying to make Lester as uncomfortable as we can,” Gyorko said. “If you’re not going to put any pressure on him he’s going to be tough to beat.”
Lester struck out nine, but walked four. He allowed six of the eight hits, and four of the five runs (three of which were earned).
St. Louis attempted to redline his stress meter whenever they could, and Pham’s trip around the bases in the third inning was that strategy executed to a tee.
After a walk, he stole second. The throw, which Contreras was forced to wing due to Pham’s huge jump, sailed into center field and the Cardinal outfielder went to third.
In came the infield.
Carlos Martinez laid a bunt down, rolling the ball toward the mound. Pham, who once again had a massive lead, cruised home to score. Every infielder crashed toward the plate on the play, either because they were flustered, or they got coverages mixed up, or perhaps because they were trying to beat Lester to the ball so they could handle the throw.
The result was no defender within a hand grenade of second base. Martinez trotted easily into scoring position, and the Cardinals had a run without ever putting a ball more than 10 feet in play.
“He steals us a run right there,” Gyorko said of Pham.
The Cardinals looked like they had all March, pesky antagonists on the bases inviting conflict because they believed the odds were in their favor. Singles became headaches, steals and sacrifice flies turned them into migraines.
The Cubs, so indomitable last season, looked a lot like the 2016 Cardinals; a step behind and a swing too late. That kind of baseball was never enough to compete for the Central in the regular season. Turns out this spring's spring baseball was.