Four HRs keep Cards in thick of WC chase
ATLANTA -- The Cardinals' 11-6 win on Monday night was hardly a few minutes old when manager Mike Shildt took the lineup card from his pocket and jotted a note: "Answered back," it read.
Such was the story of the night.
For every punch the Braves landed in the series opener at SunTrust Park, the Cardinals matched it with a counter. Each one was necessary, too, to assure the Cardinals sole possession of the National League's second Wild Card spot.
Kicking off the final two-week sprint toward October, the Cardinals headed back on the road to open the first of three remaining series against clubs currently in postseason position. It took them four home runs and scoring in five innings before they found a lead that went unthreatened.
Yadier Molina provided the knockout punch when, after helping Carlos Martinez navigate through a bases-loaded mess in the eighth, he stepped to plate and delivered a two-run blast.
"Big momentum switches back to us," Shildt said. "A lot of good team at-bats."
With three consecutive losses to the Dodgers in their previous series, the Cardinals lost the wiggle room they once had in the Wild Card standings. But Adam Wainwright revived the club on Sunday, and the offense stepped up when the pitching slipped on Monday. It positioned the club to keep a handle on a Wild Card spot while the Dodgers and Rockies dueled late on Monday.
The Dodgers, 8-2 winners, take over the lead in the NL West, with the Rockies falling behind the Cardinals in the Wild Card chase.
"We know as a group that we have to come here and we have to go home and we have to go to Chicago and play well if we want to make it [to the postseason]," Molina said. "Right now, this win, the way we hit today, hopefully we stay like that."
Twice on Monday the Cardinals watched three-run leads fade to one, only to answer back with three more runs. It happened early with homers from Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong, then late when Harrison Bader, freshly inserted as a defensive replacement, connected for a three-run blast off reliever Jesse Biddle.
That homer followed a crucial escape by Dakota Hudson, who stranded the potential tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position to close the seventh.
"It's just a matter of constantly scoring, because one inning they could turn on a four-spot really quickly," Bader said. "That's been the nature of this offense the past two months, to continually pour on runs."
Bader's 11th homer of the season also built a necessary cushion for Martinez, who was scripted for a two-inning save since Jordan Hicks (workload) and Bud Norris (callused finger) were unavailable. After breezing through an eight-pitch appearance one night earlier, Martinez labored, as the feel for his sinker and cutter abandoned him.
Against Martinez, the Braves pulled within two and, with two outs, loaded the bases for Freddie Freeman. But Freeman, who earlier homered off starter Miles Mikolas, struck out swinging on a full-count slider
"It was a game-deciding moment, for sure," Shildt said.
Molina's home run an inning later gave the Cardinals enough breathing room that they didn't have to push Martinez any further. That could allow for Martinez, who threw 32 pitches, to be available again in this series.
Long before Martinez was summoned, the Cardinals pounced on Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz for six runs over 4 2/3 innings. Wong drove in three with his first multi-hit game since returning from the disabled list.
And as it's been all season, that was enough for Mikolas. With a five-inning, two-run start, Mikolas improved to 16-0 when receiving two or more runs of support.
"I've been fortunate that when I pitch, we have great offense and we've put up runs and we play great defense and everything has come together," Mikolas said. "It's been a great season for me."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
A substitution made with defense in mind paid off on both ends for Shildt. With a 6-4 lead, Shildt sent Bader to center and, in turn, shifted Yairo Munoz to right. That positioned Munoz to be the one fielding Nick Markakis' double off the right-field wall in the seventh -- and, respecting Munoz's arm, the Braves opted to hold Freeman at third on the hit. Hudson followed with a strikeout to strand Freeman as the tying run.
Minutes later, Bader stepped in for his first at-bat and crushed a 406-foot home run. It was his first career home run off the bench.
"I was just cheering my teammates on for all those innings and just pacing the dugout, knowing that at some point my name was going to be called on," Bader said. "I was just mentally preparing for what that was going to look like."
The Cardinals remain the only NL team without a loss at SunTrust Park over multiple series, and ran their winning streak in Atlanta to seven games with Monday's victory.
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Molina's ninth-inning blast was also the 144th of his career, tying him with his brother Bengie for the most in the Molina family. Their other brother, Jose, finished his career with 39.
"I feel good that we, as a family, have had this type of career," Molina said afterward. "Bengie had a good career. Jose, too. Just to be around with them has been a great honor."
Austin Gomber (5-1, 3.78 ERA) will look to bounce back from a season-short three-inning start as he takes the mound Tuesday in a 6:35 p.m. CT game against the Braves at SunTrust Park. Gomber did not allow a run in a pair of relief appearances against Atlanta back in June. He's 2-0 with a 3.50 ERA on the road this year. The Braves will counter by starting right-hander Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 3.01 ERA).