ST. LOUIS -- As if seeing All-Star closer Ryan Helsley struggle -- first with his command, then his health -- wasn’t enough of a shock to their system, the Cardinals looked on mostly in stunned disbelief as everything they had worked to build over 8 1/3 innings in Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series disappeared in an unfathomable six-run ninth-inning collapse on Friday.
Even more shocking is the fact that the 93-win NL Central champion Cardinals now find themselves one loss away from elimination after frittering away a two-run lead in a 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Phillies before a shell-shocked crowd at Busch Stadium.
“Man, it's a tough loss, I’m not gonna lie,” said Cardinals rookie Juan Yepez, whose pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning gave the Cardinals a seemingly safe 2-0 lead when they turned the game over to Helsley. “You know, we still have two more games to go, and we're gonna win it.”
How rare was what happened to St. Louis late in the afternoon on Friday? Prior to the Phillies' six-run rally, the Cardinals had been 93-0 in their rich postseason history when entering the ninth with a lead of at least two runs.
A sellout crowd of 45,911 stood in witness -- and, for that matter, disbelief -- to what transpired before them at a suddenly hushed Busch Stadium. Now, the Cardinals head into what will be an elimination game facing the prospect of being without Helsley because of an injury suffered three days earlier in a meaningless regular-season game. Helsley left Busch Stadium after the loss to get an MRI on his injured right middle finger.
“I think we'll be fine. These guys all year have done a nice job -- whether we win a big game or lose a big game,” Cardinals rookie manager Oliver Marmol said. “The next day is a new day and this will be no different. We know what's at stake. We either win or go home. We'll embrace that.”
Helsley had been one of the Cardinals’ greatest finds this season as he progressed from middle reliever to setup man to lights-out closer. A first-time All-Star, Helsley had thrown MLB’s fastest pitch three times and he recently compiled the third immaculate inning in franchise history. All that came about while he pitched to a 9-1 record and a 1.25 ERA, and while he notched saves in 19 of 23 tries.
However, Helsley might have come into Game 1 physically compromised after jamming the middle finger on his pitching hand Tuesday in Pittsburgh when he tried to stabilize himself after staggering when a line drive was hit back right at him. He was examined and cleared by team doctors on Thursday. But after surrendering a single and two walks to load the bases with one out in the ninth, then hitting Alec Bohm to plate Philadelphia’s first run, the closer complained of finger numbness.
His status for the rest of the series is unknown as the Cardinals await imaging results taken after Friday’s game before they determine whether Helsley would need to be replaced on the roster. If he comes off, he would not be eligible for the NL Division Series roster should the Cardinals advance.
“We trust Hels, and he’s been so good for us all year,” said star third baseman Nolan Arenado, who narrowly missed out on a home run in the fourth inning and then let a ball go under his glove in the ninth. “It was just a hiccup today.”
That hiccup turned into a full-on gulp later in the inning when rookie reliever Andre Pallante -- instead of strikeout specialist Jack Flaherty -- came on in place of Helsley to take over the ninth. One of the Cardinals’ best pitchers all season at inducing ground balls, Pallante got Jean Segura to ground the ball back up the middle, but it got past drawn-in second baseman Tommy Edman, who had hoped to backhand the grounder, spin and fire to the plate to prevent the game-tying run.
“I saw it on the ground and it was just what I wanted, but it got through,” Pallante said. “You see the ball go downward and that’s exactly what I wanted. But I also knew where the defense was playing and knew it was going to be a tough play to get an out at home or first or if it got through. We have the best second baseman in the entire league there and if he can’t get it, nobody can.”
Phillies star Bryce Harper, who worked the first of two consecutive walks that loaded the bases, praised his team’s grit for the rally against one of the best closers in the game, saying: “That's winning baseball. That's what you talk about when you talk about winning baseball. That's what it takes. The grind-out at-bats, taking pitches, each guy having a plan and a mentality.”
Pallante, one of 11 Cardinals rookies to make an MLB debut this season, said he did all of his game prep the night before in case he was needed in the ninth inning. But deep down, he never thought he’d be in the game because Helsley had been such a dominant closer all season. But that was before Helsley re-injured his finger and experienced that lack of sensation during the ninth.
“I heard nothing [about Helsley’s finger issue]," said Pallante, who was touched for two runs. "And he’s such a competitor that it could have been broken and he would have been out there. I haven’t seen [today’s ninth-inning struggles] before. He’s a great pitcher and there’s nobody else we would have rather had in that situation.”