ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — The Cardinals have been marked by their inconsistency in several areas of the game in 2021.
Offensively, the team ranks 26th in MLB in OPS and runs scored. The bats haven't produced to the level of pre-season expectations, which is part of the explanation for the team's struggles in the standings. Wednesday's thrilling walk-off win over the Cubs only served to pull the Cardinals back into an even .500 record on the year, third place in the NL Central and 7.5 games back of the division-leading Brewers.
Another reason for their middling efforts this season has been tied to the flaws of the pitching staff. St. Louis leads the league—or sits at the bottom of the ledger, depending on your perspective—in hit batters and walks issued. Those free bases have caught up to the Cardinals, causing an otherwise quality collection of pitchers to land near the middle of the table in collective ERA on the year.
Though the pitching has begun to turn a corner over the first turn through the rotation since the All-Star Break, there's no guarantee the likes of Wade LeBlanc, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo will be able to replicate their recent strong outings regularly. The good news on that front? The returns of Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty appear on the horizon for some time in August, so the makeshift crew may only need to hold out for a little while longer.
Pitching and hitting compiles the bulk of what occurs in baseball. Lacking one or the other—or at times, both simultaneously—makes winning games hard to come by. There is an element of the Cardinals team that has rarely slumped throughout the 2021 campaign, though. An aspect of the sport that, if applied with aplomb, can cure what ails a ball club.
Give up a home run but prefer it not to count on the scoreboard? Sometimes, there's a way to make that happen. Need to dispose of that pesky free base runner on second base in extras innings? Yup, that's covered, too. Need 10 innings to score three runs? You can still win the game.
Each of those scenarios played out in the Cardinals' favor Wednesday night. None of them would have happened without the unwavering efforts of the St. Louis defense.
The Cardinals shined in the field throughout a 3-2 win over the Cubs Wednesday at Busch Stadium. Yadier Molina's walk-off hit in the bottom of the 10th inning officially cemented the victory, but the opportunity of that moment doesn't arise without the team's collective glove work in the previous innings.
Harrison Bader hasn't yet secured a Gold Glove Award in his big-league career, but with more plays like the gem he produced on a long drive by Willson Contreras in the first inning Wednesday, the accolades won't be far behind. Bader managed to rob the Cubs catcher of a home run with two hands, a sterling fundamental play in which he somehow positioned himself fully behind the baseball—despite that the baseball was due to leave the playing surface.
His starting pitcher was effusive in his praise of Bader's all-around efforts Wednesday. In addition to his web gem, Bader contributed an RBI double on a 3-for-4 night at the plate.
"He's got tremendous talent. We always knew that," Adam Wainwright said about Bader after Wednesday's win. Wainwright delivered another splendid start for St. Louis, tossing seven innings of one-run baseball. Bader, of course, was partially responsible for the strong outing.
Bader said NOT TODAY pic.twitter.com/bobNRMRi09— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) July 22, 2021
"He's always been an incredible outfielder," Wainwright continued. "But we've seen his offense really turn the corner. I think he's taking much better at-bats. He's not just hitting fastballs anymore. He's hitting off-speed pitches, he's driving the ball to the opposite field occasionally. The guy that does that is a tough out. He's covering the whole plate a lot better than he used to and he's taking those pitches he used to swing at in the dirt and outside. It's cool to see, offensively, him do that.
"But when he's in the outfield, he's a total game-changer out there. He is one of the best, if not the best, center fielders in all of baseball, in my opinion. Just does a great job. It's cool to see him turn a corner offensively, though, and become this total player that he's come to be. It's really neat to see."
Bader missed a large chunk of games with various injuries over the first half of the season, but has performed in the games he's played. Wednesday's efforts raised his OPS to .810 on the season, higher than both Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and behind only Tyler O'Neill among Cardinals regulars. Factor in the tremendous defense Bader provides, and that level of offensive production renders him one of the most valuable outfielders in baseball.
To illustrate that point, Bader has played just one more game this season than the sport's premiere hitter, Mike Trout. Like Bader, Trout has battled injuries to limit him to 36 games this season. Because of his massive impact offensively, Trout has still put together 1.9 WAR, per Baseball Reference.
Bader's bWAR in virtually the same number of games? 1.3. Not quite Trout territory, but perhaps a closer margin than you might expect.
The Cardinals center fielder isn't the team's only position player padding his value with elite defense. Nolan Arenado delivered another pair of defensive dandies Wednesday, both of which may have directly prevented runs.
With Contreras leading off at third base and nobody out in the sixth, Arenado gobbled up a sharp grounder and didn't hesitate to fire it to the plate to nab the runner who was going on contact. Molina was ready with the tag on the other side of the Gold-Glove connection.
Making the non-routine look routine! pic.twitter.com/nij6PCdY1c— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) July 22, 2021
Arenado had another play in the seventh, the difficulty of which the game broadcast didn't fully capture—watching from inside the stadium, it was evident. Though it's sometimes easy to forget it, Arenado is human, prone to occasional miscalculations on the diamond. When Nico Hoerner ripped a ground ball into the hole between third and shortstop, Arenado's initial motion wasn't toward the baseball.
The slight hesitation on the read could have easily resulted a base hit into left field and the runner at second scoring for Chicago. With a lesser third baseman, that might have been the result. Arenado quickly sprung into action with a diving stop to his left, then wheeling and throwing from his knees to get Hoerner at first for another sensational highlight.
We would say Nolan is a walking highlight reel, but he was kneeling so... pic.twitter.com/8EtV1e8Hk0— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) July 22, 2021
The Cardinals' final example of defensive wizardry of the night might have been their most complex. And it came courtesy of a player who had only been inserted into the game in the previous inning.
The free base runner at second to begin each frame in extra innings is a nightmare for a pitcher—like giving up a lead-off double without throwing a pitch. On the first and only pitch he did throw in the top of the 10th, John Gant permitted a base hit to set the Cubs up with first and third, nobody out.
As the Cardinals were making a pitching change to T.J. McFarland, the gears began to turn in the mind of shortstop Edmundo Sosa. His pre-play preparation led to a thrilling 6-2-5-2-6-3 double play. Sosa fielded a ground ball to short and deftly maneuvered the remainder of the sequence to score the force out at second before catching Anthony Rizzo straying off of third base.
The amount of planning, consideration and execution that went into the play on the part of the 25-year-old infielder simply boggles the mind.
these plays tend to get overlooked but edmundo sosa won the game for the cardinals tonight had his eyes on rizzo the whole way and set himself up to get a double play without allowing a run however rizzo played it pic.twitter.com/ibzeBxOICk— Sam Richmond (@samrichmondBR) July 22, 2021
"When we called to the bullpen I was running through scenarios in my head," Sosa said via interpreter. "What can I do once this play gets underway? Like, if the ball gets hit to me. So I know I'm going to play a little bit in, I know I can have good arm strength to get Rizzo if he goes and there's a ball hit to me. I also know if I get a ground ball to my glove side, I can go for the double play. But at the same time, I can keep an eye on Rizzo while I go for the double play.
"So once I grabbed the ball, I peaked at Rizzo. I saw that he wasn't breaking immediately. Then I went over to second base, took the ball by myself. Then when I peaked again, I saw that he was a little bit further down the line. I thought it was the point of no return, at that point, so I had to go home so that we could get Rizzo."
Unmentioned by even Sosa in his explanation of the play was how he ended up on the third base bag. He participated again toward the end of the rundown after traversing the infield from his shortstop position, applying the force out at second, and making his way to third base. From there, he caught the throw from Molina, forced Rizzo toward the plate for long enough that it allowed Molina to cover third, and made the final throw of the sequence to Paul Goldschmidt, who chased down Rizzo for the out.
The sheer ground covered by Sosa on one play was reminiscent of a football punt returner zig-zagging his way across the turf for a touchdown. Always one to be anywhere and everywhere he needs to be in a given situation, Sosa's moves came as no surprise to the Cardinals manager.
"This is a guy that we've seen make a lot of winning plays for us," Mike Shildt said. "He's got a baseball IQ that's high. It's something that will never show up on a spreadsheet. But it's a guy that you can win with... You're talking about a high IQ baseball guy that studies the game and anticipates and that's what winning players do."
The collection of superlative fielding plays formed the backbone of a hard-fought Cardinals win Wednesday. Following the disappointment of a blow five-run lead in the ninth inning, the crisp defense was a testament to the team's determination in ensuring one crummy loss didn't escalate into anything more sinister.
"I got asked a lot last night, a lot today, how's your team going to respond," an impassioned Shildt said after the game. Shildt was ejected for arguing a fifth-inning strike-three call on Dylan Carlson, noting it felt like a moment in which standing up on behalf of his player was the only option. "I answered that they would definitely respond in a tough fashion. If you have any doubt—I mean, every team's got some flaws. This team's got a lot of strengths. But toughness, character, perseverance, heart. You can capitalize all those things in whatever you want to write or broadcast. Because they laid it out there tonight. Could've easily not showed up. But Harrison goes and makes a big-time play. Nolan makes a phenomenal play at the plate. Makes another nice play on Hoerner. Sosa makes a very veteran, poised play. Under control in a big setting.
"The defense showing up—you play defense, you're engaged in what you're doing. Sometimes teams that aren't focused, they get lax with their defense. Our guys played phenomenal defense and played their tails off. I couldn't be more pleased and proud of this group."
Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.