Winn, Walker put on an all-around show in San Diego

September 24th, 2023

SAN DIEGO -- Within a matter of four outs and at other opportune times throughout an 11-inning game, the Cardinals got a peek into what they think will be an exceptionally bright future, when 21-year-old rookies and -- inseparable best friends and twin acquisitions from the 2020 MLB Draft -- made dueling plays that caused jaws to drop.

Winn and Walker, the top two prospects in the Cardinals' farm system prior to their arrivals at the big league level this season, left their offensive and defensive fingerprints all over Saturday’s 5-2 extra-innings victory that ended the Padres’ eight-game winning streak.

Yes, this season has been disastrous for the Cardinals, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2018, and they are still trying to avoid the franchise’s first last-place finish in 33 years. But from the rubble have emerged two pillars in Walker and Winn with which the Cardinals will build for years to come.

“It’s unbelievable and I wouldn’t have had this play out any other way,” said Walker, who made the best defensive play of his young career to rob a home run in the bottom of the sixth and then executed a swim move to score on a sacrifice fly in the Cards' three-run rally in the top of the 11th.

“This is what [he and Winn] dreamed about, even before [Double-A] Springfield; this is what we dreamed about in the alt site [camp drills during the COVID-delayed season] right after we got drafted in 2020. So, after a few years and doing this with [Winn], it’s an unbelievable feeling.”

In the hours before Saturday’s first pitch, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol talked about how Winn makes “two to three plays a night” that display his immense talent. When it played out again on Saturday, Marmol briefly allowed himself to dream what kind of future is ahead.

“What we’re seeing out of the two of them, it’s going to be a lot of fun to see them over the next [few years],” Marmol said. “I give a lot of credit to our staff and [first baseman Paul Goldschmidt] for investing meaningful time in them to make sure they’re ready for what’s next. We’re starting to see it, and this is great preparation for them helping us win in ’24.”

Ranging to his right and sliding to a stop some three steps into the outfield grass in the fifth inning, Winn deftly backhanded the 99.9 mph grounder hit by Padres star Xander Bogaerts. Remarkably, that wasn’t even the most impressive part of the play. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder not only came up throwing, but used his electrifying right arm to fire an 86.8 mph, one-hop strike to retire a hustling Bogaerts at first base, per Statcast.

Later, Winn’s arm came up big again, when he fired an 85.9 mph strike to first to double up Padres star Juan Soto after reliever John King got him to ground back to the pitcher. Winn came into the game in MLB’s 94th percentile in arm strength and he showed it time and again on Saturday.

“I tried to put a good throw on the one in the hole, but I gripped a changeup and I figured I had better just bounce it to first base,” said Winn, who added a two-out, two-run single in the seventh to give the Cards a 2-1 lead. “But on that double play, I gripped a good four-seamer and with Soto -- a lefty -- getting down the line, I knew I had to let it eat. I really tried to get the ball over there, for sure.”

Not to be outdone, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Walker retreated to the wall an inning later, leaped high into the air and pulled a potential home run by Padres slugger Luis Campusano back onto the playing surface. Like Winn, Walker came up firing and his 90.6 mph strike into second easily retired a stunned Campusano. For Walker, it was his team-best eighth outfield assist and one that helped him tie what rookies Harrison Bader (eight outfield assists in 2018) and Dylan Carlson (eight in 2021) accomplished in recent years.

Raved Winn of his close friend: “He used every inch of that 6-6 body and his wingspan to bring that ball back. That’s probably the best defensive play I’ve ever seen him make and the best throw he’s ever made. Pretty cool, man.”

What is also pretty cool for the Cards is Walker and Winn growing together and someday potentially leading the club back to prominence.

“This is an unbelievable feeling, and I don’t even really know how to describe it,” Walker said of partnering with Winn. “To have [Winn] here and to be playing together, I’m glad to have my boy back with me.”