Opening Night fireworks: Grichuk finishes what Jose Martinez started as Cardinals walk off on Cubs

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

When Jose Martinez smacked a fly ball deep into right-centerfield in the bottom of the ninth, Randal Grichuk and the rest of his Cardinals teammates thought the game was over.

“We had the call in the dugout that he was going to go deep,” Grichuk said. “We thought he did–I jumped over the railing and I had to jump back real quick.”

Martinez fell just short of a home run, but ended up on second base with a double. After scratching his way onto a major league opening day roster for this first time in his career, Martinez wasted no time making an impact, scoring the winning run Sunday as the Cardinals walked off on the Cubs 4-3 at Busch Stadium.

It was Grichuk–after his premature hop over the railing–who ensured the game would still end in the ninth. He roped a bases-loaded walk-off single to the wall in left field, sending the fraction of the crowd that stuck around through the late-night rain home happy.

Mike Matheny summed up what he liked about Grichuk’s ninth-inning approach succinctly: “That it hit the grass, and we scored a run.”

Grichuk not only won the game in the ninth, but his two-run home run in the eighth gave the Cardinals crucial insurance runs, meaning Willson Contreras’ three-run homer off Seung-Hwan Oh in the top of the ninth was only enough to tie the score.

“You watch the ball jump off his bat into the bullpen, and that just takes a special kind of power,” Matheny said. “He just didn’t try to do too much. He doesn’t need to. The ball carries for him, just take a nice simple approach, didn’t try to do too much. Obviously, it was huge.”

It was a welcomed approach from Grichuk, who can ride a wave of momentum as well as anyone. Late in the 2016 season, after he was sent to Memphis for a spell, Grichuk became the stallion let loose from the stable–and the results spoke for themselves.

Once Matheny let the reins loose on Grichuk–giving him an extended run of playing time regardless of his performance in the previous game–he thrived. Grichuk slugged 12 home runs for 31 RBIs during August and September, and displayed the kind of consistent production he’s been chasing his entire Cardinal career.

In saving Sunday’s game from a potentially ugly ending, Grichuk picked up right where he left off. For a player known to be streaky at the plate, you couldn’t ask for a better momentum builder than Grichuk’s Sunday night.

“This game, when they say it’s 90-percent mental, 10-percent physical, I’m a 100-percent believer in that,” Grichuk said. “To be able to come out and start good, it boosted the confidence. The way I ended last year gave me confidence going into the offseason, so I’m excited to see where the year goes.”

For Martinez, his clutch moment on the first day of the season might indicate this year will go in a better direction than any of his previous ones.

“For what he had to go through in his career, to be able to come up here and have that at-bat and contribute on opening day, it’s got to be so special for him,” Grichuk said. “He was fired up at second base, which is pretty exciting. I always love seeing emotion come out of the player. It was pretty cool.”

Martinez returned to the clubhouse after the game to see his phone had already been blown up with video from family and friends of his ninth-inning heroics. He watched it right away–and not for the last time.

“I’m never going to forget this moment in my life, never.” Martinez said. “When I’m watching those videos and I’m scoring, pumping around, jumping around–it’s going to be pretty special. I’m just going to watch this video for the whole night. I don’t think I’m going to sleep tonight. I’m going to take advantage of my day off tomorrow, so I can go to bed at maybe five or six in the morning tomorrow.”

Rest up, Mr. Martinez. This was only one of 162.

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