ST. LOUIS -- It was not a white flag they were waving, but rather a spark the Cardinals were seeking when the organization made the surprising decision to part ways with their Opening Day center fielder last month.
Tommy Pham's exit offered Harrison Bader an entrance, as well as a stage to showcase the sort of skill set the Cardinals haven't flashed in years. Given the chance to prove himself worthy of regular playing time, Bader has run with the opportunity.
Showcasing his elite speed to save one run and add another, Bader's fingerprints -- or, perhaps more accurately, his footsteps -- were all over the Cardinals' 4-2 win against the Nationals on Wednesday.
"He's just such a high energy player," said Matt Carpenter, who dodged an injury when X-rays of his bruised right hand came back negative. "He can ignite an offense. He can ignite a defense. He can ignite a pitching staff with his play. You see like what Billy Hamilton can be, we think Harrison Bader can be and is that same guy."
The victory ran the Cardinals' winning streak to eight games and assured the club a sixth straight series win, the franchise's longest such streak in four years. The Cards remain a game back of the Brewers and Phillies in the National League Wild Card race and four games behind the Cubs in the NL Central.
They are 11 games over .500 for the first time since 2015.
"We've known all year that we were capable of playing this type of baseball," Bader said. "Everything is just rolling together and we're trying to preserve that as best we can for these final games."
Situated second on the center-field depth chart until the Cardinals decided to move on from Pham two weeks ago, Bader made an impact in the air and on the ground Wednesday.
He added another defensive gem to his growing list when he laid out to rob Bryce Harper of a hit in the fourth inning by covering 68 feet in 4.2 seconds, according to Statcast™. With a 55-percent catch probability, it was Bader's 26th catch of at least three stars this season.
"Unbelievable," said starter Austin Gomber. "Obviously, I feel like he's making one of those a game for me, but he's making them for everybody."
"He's the best outfielder I've ever played with," added Carpenter.
Bader, not nearly as impressed, shrugged off the praise.
"Not to sound cocky or anything like that, but off the bat, I just knew I had it," he said. "The dive was just to level my eyes because I was running for a while. It was just another one."
That out was key, though, as was the one Gomber notched shortly afterward with a bases-loaded strikeout to preserve a 1-0 lead. Gomber went on to finish six scoreless innings.
"We're just trying to pass the ball on," Gomber said. "You don't want to be the guy that loses it, so just go out there and try to be better than the guy before you."
As for Bader, he pestered the Nationals all night. Bader opened the fifth with a double, hustled to third on Gomber's sacrifice bunt and dove into home safely on a wild pitch. In his next at-bat, Bader drove in a run.
Over the last six games, Bader has six RBIs and three multi-hit efforts.
"Like I've always said, you're not going to hit a home run every time. You're not going to get a hit every time," Bader said. "But if there's a way to apply pressure on the basepaths, good things are going to happen."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Gomber escapes trouble: Gomber maneuvered his way through a messy top of the fourth not only with an assist from Bader, but also by freezing Michael A. Taylor on an 0-2 fastball. The strikeout followed a two-out, eight-pitch walk to Daniel Murphy, and it stranded the bases loaded in a one-run game.
"Murphy has done a lot of good things in the league, and I just felt like I wasn't going to give in to him," Gomber said. "If I got him to chase, I got him to chase. The first thing that [catcher] Yadi [Molina] said when he came out there was, 'All right, this was our guy.' And we were able to get him."
Four of Gomber's season-high six strikeouts came with a runner in scoring position.
"I just think it speaks to his confidence and his competitive spirit," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "He just continued to make good pitches and stayed aggressive and made quality pitches."
Other defensive standouts: Bader wasn't alone in dotting the highlight reel with defensive gems. For the second consecutive night, Jedd Gyorko robbed Trea Turner of a hit, this time with a leaping grab to snare a high chopper.
In the eighth, shortstop Paul DeJong left his feet to grab a 93.6 mph line drive from Juan Soto.
"Of course, the play Bader makes in center field is special," Shildt said. "But a lot of defensive plays were special tonight."
Shildt's 19-9 start is the best by a Cardinals manager through his first 28 games. The club is a Major League-best 12-2 in August.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Ozuna snapped a string of 62 consecutive homerless plate appearances with his second-inning solo shot off Jeremy Hellickson. With an exit velocity of 113.8 mph, Ozuna's home run was the second-hardest by a Cardinals player since Statcast™ began tracking in 2015. Ozuna also owns the record (117.2 mph), as well as three of the four highest home run exit velocities for the club in the last four years. He has posted an average exit velocity of 107.9 mph on his 14 home runs this season.
"I thought in my mind that I hit it harder," Ozuna said afterward. "'Maybe 113 [mph]?' That's what I was thinking running the bases. When I go in the second inning and look up and ask the video guy, and he said 'Yeah, 113.8.' I was right."
HE SAID IT
"I was pleading my case to be ready to go tomorrow, and I told [head athletic trainer] Adam Olsen that if I can go in there and open a jar of salsa, I should be fine. … I was able to do it. I don't know if it necessarily has healing powers. But if I can open it, I can play." -- Carpenter, after X-rays on his bruised right hand came back negative
The Cardinals moved Luke Weaver's start up to Thursday, when he'll close out the team's four-game series against the Nationals. Weaver, who was scratched from his last start due to a cut on his right index finger, will be pitching on eight days' rest. He'll be opposed by Tanner Roark in the 6:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium.