Ambivalence followed the Cardinals deep into this offseason, without a Major League move on the ledger until the final week of January. Then Nolan Arenado was acquired, a crop of players turned in fantastic springs and ambivalence morphed into excitement.
Excitement took one inning to manifest in the 2021 season.
A six-run opening frame propelled St. Louis to an 11-6 Opening Day win over the Reds at Great American Ball Park on Thursday -- a day filled with flurries of snow, positive first impressions and a pitching battery led by Jack Flaherty that showed signs of leakage, but ultimately held on to start what the club hopes is a trophy-laden 2021 season with a victory.
“The barn door came open today,” said manager Mike Shildt, “and they stormed out of it.
Brandishing a lineup that featured Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado within its top three batters, the former appeared to put the Cards on top just two at-bats into the game with a solo homer to right, but replay deemed it a double.
That may be the only time that the Cardinals are pleased that a replay goes against them all season.
Arenado -- 2-for-5 in his Cardinals debut -- and Goldschmidt turned in run-scoring hits before Tyler O’Neill’s scorched two-run shot put the game out of reach in the fourth.
Goldschmidt joined his corner-infield partner atop the lineup with a 4-for-5 day via a pair of doubles, alongside three runs scored.
“There's just an immediate little bit of a punch in the face that says, ‘There it is,’” Shildt said of the Cards’ new Bash Bros. “Then we turn it over, there they are again.”
“Hopefully we can do well,” Goldschmidt said, “and Tommy [Edman] sets the table, and we can do our jobs.”
The Cardinals’ revamped lineup figures to provide more of an offensive punch than the one that finished near the bottom of baseball in runs scored last season. And it’s not just because of Arenado. O’Neill is coming off of an impressive spring, Carlson is fully arriving and shedding his prospect status and Edman is becoming the table-setter that the club hopes he can be -- all steps forward that don’t show up on the MLB transactions log.
Productive at-bats are contagious, as the core hitting belief goes. And when it starts from the top, it trickles down.
Just ask a pitcher.
“It's right out the gates you got to have your stuff with you,” Flaherty said. “Especially if Tommy gets on, and then you have to worry about Tommy running. And then you got Goldie up there, so you're worried about Tommy running at first. You get Goldie up to bat, and you can't pitch around him because you got Nolan on-deck. And then after them you got Paulie [DeJong], too, and he's no slouch. ... It just continues to add on, the whole lineup and the depth of it.”
Got all of that?
The Cardinals hope that opposing pitchers don’t figure it out, especially when it comes to adding onto a 6-0 lead that later comes into question.
Those nerves started with Flaherty, whose 2021 season opened with a less-than-auspicious 4 1/3 innings of six-run ball, allowing runs in every inning but the second. The brisk weather and bits of snowfall were no excuse -- Flaherty is looking to vault back into his elite self after a forgettable ‘20 season.
“He was pretty sharp at times, and then a couple of times, the ball got away from him,” Shildt said, “but he was in control with his composure and stuff looked good.”
Handed a bases-loaded jam, Tyler Webb conceded a sac fly before Ryan Helsley and Génesis Cabrera turned in their own high-wire acts, leaving unscathed.
For Helsley, a miscue by the Reds’ Tyler Stephenson on the basepaths turned a surefire sacrifice fly into an inning-ending double play. Until that point -- and even after -- what was an 11-run game had moments of tension.
Off a topsy-turvy offseason, the Cardinals don’t really know any other way.