ST. LOUIS -- When T.J. McFarland threw his third pitch, he got a double-play ball that got the Cardinals into the seventh-inning stretch with a lead. Preempting the classic ode at the ballpark was the guitar strum of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive classic, “Takin' Care of Business,” blaring out of the Busch Stadium sound system.
The Cardinals, aptly, took care of business Sunday afternoon.
After dropping Friday’s opener, St. Louis clawed back to take the final two of three games from Cincinnati, capped off by a 2-0 win. Each of the two victories was nimble, decided by a two-run blast by Nolan Arenado, but each propelled the Cardinals further up the National League Wild Card chase, with one game gained on the Reds squad they trail and momentum in their favor before a series with the Mets, whom they are trying to fend off, and the Padres, whom they also trail.
“It’s a huge one. It's a big win today,” said McFarland, who notched his eighth hold to secure a win for J.A. Happ. “But to be honest, all these wins from here to the end of the season are going to be big wins. Obviously, against Cincinnati and the fact that we won the series, go into New York getting the ball rolling -- we have a lot of momentum right now.”
Elsewhere on Sunday, the Padres saw their ace as of late, Blake Snell, leave his start after just two outs recorded with an injury. It's not known whether he'll be able to face the Cardinals when San Diego comes to town next weekend. The Phillies, who own the NL’s easiest strength of schedule to close the season, also lost.
Momentum, from numerous directions, is flowing -- but no more important than the one coming from Busch Stadium.
“We've got some tough games that we've been able to win a lot of. We've got a couple [that have] really hurt at the end,” said manager Mike Shildt. “But this is a team that is hungry, is going to fight. We're going to stay together, and we're going to keep preparing and we're going to continue to get after it. … If you’re a fan of this team, you got to respect that and appreciate that.”
The manner in which St. Louis won also helps. The Cardinals saw the opposing pitcher go far deeper than their own in the past two games, winning each regardless. Sunday’s iteration was Sonny Gray working past Arenado’s two-run blast to hold the Cards rather listless from the first inning on.
In two consecutive swings dating to Saturday’s magical game-winner, Arenado hit two consecutive two-run game-winning blasts. Each moved him up the clutch leaderboards; no batter has more go-ahead home runs since the start of 2019, nor in ‘21 alone.
An invigorated Arenado down the stretch?
“That’s what I’m here for,” the superstar said recently.
The Cards on Sunday hung their hat on Happ, who immaculately rebounded not only from his last start, but more from the one prior, when Cincinnati hung eight hits and seven runs on him in one-plus innings. On Sunday: 5 1/3 frames, two hits, no runs -- and his fourth Cardinals win.
Happ said that last start in Cincinnati left him with literal sleepless nights. But his day was emblematic of the Cardinals' en masse.
“You have an outing like that and you want to do anything to get it back and to try to rewind that and start that thing over again,” Happ said. “That's the nature of the beast that we play, and you got to get over it.”
Withstanding gut punches and backbreakers once a week to end August and start September, St. Louis has kept itself in the thick of the race. Conceding a walk-off three-run homer to the Pirates? The Cardinals responded by winning two of three against the Reds. Allowing a walk-off grand slam to the Brewers, then dropping the first two against the Dodgers? They responded by splitting the series with Los Angeles, going 4-1 in their last five games.
The Cardinals -- despite the injuries, despite the struggles, despite the churn -- are very much alive, and with at least some say in their destiny.
“We always felt like we were in a horse race. Around the stretch they come,” Shildt said. “And we got good closing speed.”