ST. LOUIS -- It doesn’t take a seismologist to sense the shifting plates in the National League Central with the depleted and reeling Brewers sliding back and the bolstered Cardinals surging to the top of the division and seemingly still picking up steam.
Even with the end of the regular season still two months away, Thursday likely signified a changing of the guard among the Cardinals and Brewers even though they are technically still tied atop the division. Like some sort of perfect storm where multiple events lined up ideally for St. Louis, Milwaukee was swept in Pittsburgh before the Cards swept a doubleheader vs. the Cubs.
When the Cardinals won Game 1, 4-3, on a Lars Nootbaar walk-off single and then got a strong outing from newcomer José Quintana and a late tiebreaking three-run home run from Tyler O’Neill in a 7-2 Game 2 victory, it allowed them to pick up 1 1/2 games on the Brewers. The two teams are now tied for first in the NL Central, but their outlooks couldn’t be more different after the Cardinals dealt for three pitchers before the Trade Deadline, while the Brewers shockingly unloaded All-Star closer Josh Hader.
“It’s tough to win two games, and that was a really good day,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol surmised. “You look into the eyes of Quintana before that game starts and it gives you goosebumps. You look at anybody on the club now, there’s a really good feeling going around. And, like I’ve said, the guys are really determined. This is a fun little run.”
That’s certainly a feeling shared by superstar Nolan Arenado, who not only hit a 428-foot home run, but also had a highlight-worthy double play in the seventh inning. Arenado pined for some roster additions before the Deadline because he knew the momentum a team can get from adding to its arsenal, and now he is seeing those vibes coursing through a team with newfound confidence.
“We know that we have a chance -- we have a chance to win this division and we have a chance to get to the playoffs,” said Arenado, who had the first home run since Statcast began tracking long balls in 2015 with a distance of at least 428 feet, an exit velocity of at least 108 mph and a launch angle of at least 39 degrees. “I mean, I don’t know how much more energy you need than that.”
The Cardinals, winners of four straight heading into their weekend series against the Yankees, swept a doubleheader from the Cubs in St. Louis for the first time since Aug. 10, 1979. It was also the first series sweep of the rival Cubs in St. Louis since May 31-June 2, 2019.
The Cardinals feel they are better equipped to go on runs like this because their starting staff includes 6-foot-6 lefty Jordan Montgomery and Quintana, an 11-year veteran who didn’t get rattled by giving up a first-inning home run to Patrick Wisdom. All Quintana did from there was finish six innings without allowing another hit or run. He struck out seven -- including a stretch of four in a row at one point -- by using a sweeping curveball that he wasn’t afraid to bounce in front of the plate because of his trust in veteran catcher Yadier Molina.
“Throwing to Yadi, the best catcher in baseball, was really exciting,” Quintana said. “I just follow him. There are so many emotions pitching to him, but I liked it a lot because we worked so well together tonight.”
To his credit, Marmol has said repeatedly that the Cardinals can’t fulfill their potential until they get the muscle-bound O’Neill swinging the bat like last season, when he surged into the top 10 in NL MVP voting. On Thursday, O’Neill drilled a hanging curveball into the Cubs’ bullpen for a three-run home run that broke a 2-2 tie. After hitting a career-best 34 home runs last season, it was just O’Neill’s sixth home run -- and his first at Busch Stadium since Opening Day.
O’Neill’s swat helped St. Louis sweep the Cubs and catch the Brewers. Days don’t get much better than that for the suddenly surging Cardinals.
“The way we look at it is, this team is not only prepared, but determined to do something special,” Marmol predicted. “We got No. 4 [Molina] back, we’ve got a very excited clubhouse and starting pitching that is going to stabilize the rotation. The boys are on a mission to do something. Today was a great example of that.”