Entering their National League Wild Card Series against the Padres, all questions this week were on the Cardinals’ offense and how it would overcome its struggle to produce consistently in the regular season.
St. Louis provided some answers to those questions right out of the gate on Wednesday.
A four-run first inning and a two-run third inning off Padres starter Chris Paddack gave the Cardinals enough cushion in their 7-4 win in Game 1 of the best-of-three series at Petco Park. The win sets up a clinch situation on Thursday for the fifth-seeded Cardinals with Adam Wainwright facing Zach Davies in Game 2.
“We’re right where we want to be as far as this first game,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “We showed them we’re ready to play, and we sent a message.”
The Cardinals had a bounce in their step following two days off after playing 53 games in 44 days to finish the regular season. The exhaustion from that schedule is far from an excuse for the offense’s trials, but it also couldn’t be ignored. Before the game, Wainwright said he was excited to see what the Cardinals hitters do when “they’re not so exhausted,” mentioning that the position players were the ones who wore the brunt of the schedule. He could see in their faces how tired they were.
They took full advantage of the two off-days before Wednesday.
“It was nice,” Paul Goldschmidt said. “That whole last, whatever, 45 days, we were just playing every day. And guys were playing as hard as they could, but you can’t operate at 100 percent for that long. It was nice to recharge and come back here and be at 100 percent or close to it and just be ready to go.”
Goldschmidt showed how ready he was right away. His two-run homer sparked a four-run inning off Paddack, and the Cardinals didn’t stop there.
They began the game quickly swinging on Paddack’s fastball and had two first-pitch RBI hits in the first inning: Goldschmidt’s home run and Yadier Molina’s single. It was a different strategy from the patience at the plate they showed all season -- and it couldn’t have worked out better. Paddack was out of the game after 2 1/3 innings. The Cardinals hit Paddack’s fastball hard and often; the right-hander registered just two swings and misses on the 25 he threw.
“Our approach from the beginning was we were going to hit his heater, because he’s throwing it and guys are having success,” DeJong said. “I thought we executed our approach and really just kind of ambushed him there a little bit. Bang, bang, bang, bunch of hits, bunch of hard hits. Got him on his heels.”
Two more runs came in the third with Dylan Carlson’s one-out single -- his second hit on a stellar day for the rookie outfielder -- Molina’s double, DeJong’s RBI single and Matt Carpenter’s RBI single. DeJong was on base all five times he came to the plate, with two singles, two walks and a hit-by-pitch. He came around to score the Cardinals’ final run in the ninth inning.
Those two runs in the third proved to be crucial insurance runs. The Padres threatened with three runs off Cardinals starter Kwang Hyun Kim, who pitched 3 2/3 innings, and they added another in the sixth to bring them within two runs. But the Cardinals’ bullpen was set up exactly the way manager Mike Shildt wanted it to be, using all his high-leverage relievers to cover 5 1/3 innings.
“We had all the bullets today, all the weapons today, and they did a great job,” Shildt said.
Two big moments in the sixth inning made sure a comeback didn’t happen. The first was Jake Cronenworth’s mistake on the basepaths, when he attempted to advance from second to third on a sacrifice fly. Right fielder Dexter Fowler made a perfect relay to Goldschmidt, who threw to Tommy Edman to chase down Cronenworth in between second and third base.
Then, with runners on first and second and two outs, Giovanny Gallegos came in to face Fernando Tatis Jr., striking out Tatis swinging on his signature slider. Alex Reyes notched a four-out save in his postseason debut, first by getting Tatis to ground out to DeJong for the final out of the eighth inning with two on and two outs.
“You could say both at-bats [vs. Tatis], Gio and Alex, were pretty big at-bats,” Shildt said. “They did really good stuff, with nasty stuff.”
It was clear the Cardinals were ready to grab the lead and hold on to it -- in the game and the series. Even the even-keeled Goldschmidt was fired up, DeJong said.
“It’s more in the eyes,” DeJong said. “You’ve got to see it in the eyes. The intention, the intensity, all that stuff. He’s like, ‘We’ve got to bury these guys. We’re coming right at them tomorrow, first inning again.’
“We wanted to send a message. We know what those guys are capable of over there, and we didn’t want to give them a chance, or even a glimmer of hope or space to do what they do. We wanted to take it to them early, and that’s going to be our goal tomorrow first inning. We’re going to be right on them.”