ST. LOUIS -- The story of the night from Wednesday, of course, was the Cardinals grinding out one grueling ninth-inning at-bat after another to build momentum, until it came to a crescendo with Tommy Edman’s two-run walk-off double for an improbable 6-5 victory over the Nationals at Busch Stadium.
The bigger picture, however, is what this stirring win could do for St. Louis come postseason time next month.
Not long after Edman’s double eluded left fielder Alex Call’s glove and allowed Tyler O’Neill and rookie Ben DeLuzio to come around and score, superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado -- one of the heroes of the madcap five-run rally -- admitted the Cardinals have shifted their focus in recent days.
Instead of simply trying to whip the slumping Brewers in the National League Central, the Cards now have the Mets and Braves in their sights in hopes of securing the coveted No. 2 seed in the NL. Getting that would give St. Louis a first-round bye and keep it from having to be exposed against a dangerous team such as Philadelphia, San Diego or Milwaukee in the Wild Card Series.
In becoming the first MLB team this season to enter the bottom of the ninth inning down by four or more runs and rally to win, the Cardinals closed to within five games of the Braves and 5 1/2 of the Mets.
“That would be huge, and that’s kind of what we’ve been thinking about lately,” Arenado admitted. “We still want to win the division, and we’re up a few games, but we’re really focused on getting that second seed. We’ve got a long way to go, and the Mets are really good, and the Braves are really good. But our focus is to win as many games as we can and see where we end up.”
Most of Wednesday looked like a forgettable night for the Cardinals when the Nationals got to starter Jordan Montgomery with two outs in the seventh to knot the game at 1. St. Louis' bullpen proceeded to give up four runs in the eighth, putting it in a 5-1 hole.
The ninth inning started innocently enough with a Brendan Donovan single on a ball that took a tough hop and deflected off of third baseman César Hernández. Prior to going to the plate, Donovan said he heard multiple voices in the Cardinals' dugout encouraging him to find a way on base to get something started.
“There’s zero panic in that dugout -- whether we are up by five or down by five, it is, ‘Let’s get somebody on base, make it happen, somebody get on,’” Donovan said. “Guys on base create havoc. That’s just how it starts, and then it’s a snowball effect from there.”
From there, Paul Goldschmidt walked, Arenado hit an RBI ground-rule double down the right-field line and Corey Dickerson plated another run with a groundout. O’Neill had arguably the biggest plate appearance of the inning by working a walk out of an 0-2 count.
With the Cardinals down to their final out, veteran catcher Yadier Molina singled in Arenado, and Edman pounced on a first-pitch 98 mph sinker from Nats right-hander Kyle Finnegan for the winning double.
“Since we were down four runs, everybody was being patient and taking that first strike, and [Finnegan] was throwing a ton of first-pitch fastballs for strikes,” Edman said. “So once we had the tying run on second, I was like, ‘OK, I definitely don’t want to take that first-pitch fastball right down the middle, and I have to be ready.’”
Like Arenado, Edman said he had started to shift his focus in recent days to the potential of catching the Mets or Braves for the No. 2 seed in the NL. That kind of thinking has been made possible, of course, by the Cardinals going on a 30-9 run to blow past the Brewers and open a 9 1/2-game lead in the NL Central.
“We’ve got our eyes on the standings a little bit,” said Edman, who has two of the Cardinals' seven walk-off hits this season. “Obviously, putting away the division is the first thing, and getting that bye would be amazing. We’ve just got to continue to play good baseball and hope [the Mets] don’t play as well as they have most of this year, and I think we’ve got a shot to overtake them.”
Added Arenado: “We want to be in the [Division Series] and be in that five-game series. I think anybody would want that. We’ve got 20-something games left, and we want to win every one of them and then see where we’re at.”