O'Neill resembling '21 form: 'We’re going to need him'

Surging left fielder tallies two hits, walks off Rockies on an RBI hit-by-pitch

August 17th, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- All throughout the Cardinals’ early-season inconsistencies and even as the team has been playing its best baseball of late, manager Oliver Marmol has stuck with one refrain. It goes like this: If the Cardinals are going to become the best versions of themselves -- one that can compete with NL powerhouses such as the Dodgers, Mets and Braves -- Tyler O’Neill has to become a multidimensional threat again.

And finally, following a series of injury-related speedbumps and frustrating nights, O’Neill is starting to resemble the dynamic player who slugged his way into a Top 10 finish in NL MVP voting last season. 

After breaking out of a particularly unsightly 0-for-14 skid (including eight strikeouts) with a game-tying homer on Sunday, O’Neill carried over that momentum to Tuesday at Busch Stadium, when he logged two hits and two hit-by-pitches -- the second one coming with the bases loaded in the ninth to bring home the winning run for a 5-4 walk-off victory against the Rockies.

“When we’re slumping as hitters, a guy like me has to swing my way out of it,” said O’Neill. “We can work all day and hit in the cage until our hands bleed and go out in BP and hit buckets and buckets of balls, but you’ve got to feel that game-like barrel out there -- at least I do. The bat felt good in my hands tonight, and I’m just trying to work with that momentum and ride it.” 

The Cardinals won for the 11th time in the past 12 games at Busch Stadium, a place that has been a house of horrors for the Rockies throughout the years. Colorado has lost its last 10 games in St. Louis, a skid that dates to Aug. 1, 2018.

Rockies reliever Dinelson Lamet opened the bottom of the ninth by throwing 10 of his first 15 pitches for balls to walk Andrew Knizner and Lars Nootbaar. After Lamet threw wildly to first on a bunt single by Dylan Carlson, he plunked O’Neill to force across the Cardinals’ winning run.

For O’Neill -- a player who has had two stints on the injured list and even got hurt again while on the shelf -- winning Tuesday’s game was a welcomed sight. In sign of how his luck might be changing, O’Neill had both pitches that hit him bounce off his elbow guard.

“Luck is going to turn around eventually, and that’s why baseball is 162 games,” said O’Neill, who had career highs in home runs (34) and RBIs (80) in 2021 but has just seven homers and 40 RBIs this season. “There are down stretches and good stretches, and it’s about exploiting those good stretches. I’ve had to fight my way out of a couple of down stretches that have unfortunately happened, but I’m staying positive and mentally tough.”

Marmol recently moved O’Neill to the No. 2 spot in the order, in hopes the left fielder will see more strikes while hitting ahead of MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Marmol was happy to see O’Neill hit two balls hard, reach 30.7 feet per second to leg out an infield single and take a pitch off the elbow pad to plate the game-winner. That sort of involvement in a win from O’Neill is just what the Cardinals need to reach their peak.

“I stick by that -- Tyler O’Neill is going to have to step up and take some big at-bats for us and drive in some runs and get on base for this offense to be what it needs to be,” Marmol said. “We’ve got to count on him.”

On Sunday, when both O’Neill and Carlson entered in offensive droughts, the former looked to the latter during a pregame stretching drill and said, “It’s our day.” As it turned out, O’Neill was right, as he hit the game-tying home run and Carlson smashed the go-ahead blast.  

On Tuesday, Carlson marveled at how O’Neill’s fingerprints were all over the victory -- something that shows how much of a positive effect he can have on St. Louis when he’s playing well. Of course, Carlson and the Cardinals are hopeful of seeing more of that going forward. 

“T.O. is a stud, and he can beat teams in a lot of different ways,” Carlson said. “He takes quality at-bats, he can work counts, and he can obviously drive the ball out to any part of the field. He’s been taking great at-bats for us, and we’re going to need him.”