ATLANTA -- On the bench for the first six innings, Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson said he kept himself ready and engaged by thinking along with his teammates when they were hitting and by closely watching balls off the bat of Braves hitters.
That prep work -- advanced stuff, really, for a 23-year-old player -- ultimately helped Carlson carve out one of the best nights of his young career in just five innings of action.
Carlson had three hits, the final one being a line-drive single in the top of the 11th inning to score Nolan Arenado for what proved to be the game-winning run of the Cardinals’ 3-2 defeat of the Braves at Truist Park.
As electrifying as getting the game-winning hit was, it never would have been possible without the jaw-dropping defensive play Carlson made in the ninth. When Michael Harris II drove a pitch 110.2 mph into the left-center-field gap, Carlson wasn’t sure he could run the ball down. However, he covered the 61 feet necessary and made the grab one step shy of the warning track -- even though Statcast measured the hit probability at 89%. After hitting the wall, Carlson had the presence to fire the ball back to Tommy Edman, who doubled Phil Gosselin off first.
“The play Dylan made was unreal. Off the bat, I thought, ‘No shot!’” said Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, whose team ended a four-game skid and avoided being swept in four games by the Braves for the first time in 25 years. “For him to run it down and double him off, that was a treat.”
Carlson, who played center given the plantar fasciitis injury to 2021 Gold Glover Harrison Bader, made three highlight-worthy catches in the four-game series; Wednesday’s chase-down catch earning him a spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. However, that catch paled in comparison to what he did Thursday with the game on the line. Carlson said the game-saver was undoubtedly one of the best plays of his career, even though he much prefers throwing runners out. He had little time to think during Thursday’s play, but he went after it with everything he had because he knew the game was over if he didn’t haul the ball in.
“In that situation, I was definitely trying to be aggressive and catch anything in the air,” said Carlson, who had singles in the seventh, ninth and 11th innings. “Knowing the guy on first base could really run and the situation we were in, just be aggressive and go make a play.”
The Cardinals won a game in which they struck out 19 times -- 12 against Atlanta rookie Spencer Strider, who recorded the first nine outs by strikeout. They won despite entering in their worst funk of the season, having lost six of seven. Additionally, they won a series finale for the first time since June 5, snapping an eight-game losing streak in those situations.
“The good sign with this group -- whether it was a win or a loss -- is there’s no panic and they know what this process looks like and they know what they need to do,” Marmol said. “Are some guys beat up and tired? Absolutely. Are some guys grinding through it? Yes. Credit to them, because they stayed with this one.”
Carlson stayed with it even though Marmol was trying to give him a night off after he had played in the past 18 games in a row. A switch-hitter at the plate, one of the few MLB players with at least three at-bats in all nine spots in the order this season and an outfielder capable of playing center or right field, Carlson is one of the Cardinals’ most versatile players. When the Braves used three left-handed relievers late in the game, it not only gave Carlson a chance to come into the game, but also bat right-handed and show off his ability to spray the ball all over.
“I didn’t even start, but I thought along with the game and thought if we face a lefty in that part of the lineup I might have a chance to come in, so I mentally prepared and got ahead of the game,” Carlson said. “The fact that we faced three lefties, statistically there’s not a great chance of that happening. It was just about being ready for the opportunity.”
Marmol said one of the things he loves most about Carlson is that while he is mostly quiet and reserved, he can summon great moments like the ones he pulled off on Thursday.
“He’s a super quiet kid, but there’s way more grit there than he lets on,” Marmol revealed. “There’s an edge to him that allows him to do the things you are seeing. When you ask him to do more -- go play center, go hit second -- there’s something inside of him where he takes it as a challenge and not a threat. It’s cool to see.”