O'Neill's blast propels Cards in series finale

August 20th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- The possibility was there for the Cardinals to sulk into the night, allow a sweep to the Brewers at the hands of their Cy Young contender and hope to pick themselves up with the last-place Pirates coming to town a day later.

Instead, the Cards bashed for five runs in the fifth inning, for six runs off Brandon Woodruff and for an 8-4 rebound win over the Brewers at Busch Stadium on Thursday evening.

“What a heart of this club to show back up,” said manager Mike Shildt. 

They scored the most runs off Woodruff that he’s allowed all season. They saw Tyler O’Neill hammer his fifth 450-plus foot homer of the season and 21st overall. Then they witnessed Lars Nootbaar go back-to-back for his first home run at Busch Stadium, with chants of “Noooot” raining down.

"It's always sick going back-to-back with the boys, honestly,” O’Neill said.

They exchanged happy handshakes with the chance to build some momentum into a Charmin-soft portion of their schedule to close out August.

Most importantly, the Cards picked themselves up from the wounds of their first two losses in the series and kept pace in the NL Wild Card chase, seeing the Reds win on Thursday but the Padres idle from action. St. Louis is now 3 1/2 games out of the postseason picture.

The Cardinals’ biggest regret from this midweek series against their NL Central rivals is that they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities presented to them prior to Thursday. They were stymied by Cy Young-contender Corbin Burnes in the first game but struck out only three times, always within striking distance and dropping a 2-0 affair. In the second game, they got to fellow Cy Young contender Freddy Peralta early, but ninth- and 10th-inning meltdowns were too much to overcome.

Their margins are slim, and they know that. They waltz into their series against Pittsburgh pleased with their victory, but know it’s not enough.

“They threw their best arms at us, and, honestly, that's what we should expect being the Cardinals anyway,” O’Neill said. “We're in the hunt, we're obviously looking up on the leaderboard there right now, but it’s a day-by-day thing, and we're just going to keep competing, keep taking it one at a time.”

What they’ll take forward is the confidence in the processes they’ve built. Not just in their hitting -- which provided cause for optimism by hanging with the best arms that the best rotation in the Majors has to offer -- but also in their pitching.

It didn’t apply as much to Jon Lester on Thursday night, who had to work past a comebacker off his right calf for 4 1/3 innings of four-run ball. But the bullpen behind him responded impressively: 5 2/3 innings -- no baserunners.

Two of the innings were thrown by pitchers not on the Cardinals’ roster at the start of July: Luis García, who hasn’t been scored on in 10 consecutive outings, and T.J. McFarland, who got the ninth after Alex Reyes was forced to throw 32 pitches in Wednesday’s loss, lowering his ERA to 2.25.

It was simply good vibes all around. Génesis Cabrera extended his scoreless streak to 15 games and 14 2/3 innings, needing just 15 total pitches (14 strikes) for a pair of clean frames on Wednesday and Thursday. 

And to cap it all off: Junior Fernández threw just two pitches, collected a pair of outs on a double play, and in exchange, he earned his first career Major League victory.

The bullpen as a whole threw 38 pitches across 5 2/3 innings.

"Let's don't kid ourselves about the acquisitions,” Shildt said. “McFarland and Luís García have done a tremendous job of settling down the other parts of that bullpen."

Strictly judging the series by wins and losses, the Cardinals didn’t provide themselves the best momentum to take on a stretch with 10 straight games against the Pirates and Tigers starting with Miles Mikolas’ return on Friday. They lost on two days this week that the Reds did as well, and they won on Thursday, when the Reds did, too.

But the uplifting sentiments, the confidence and the belief that this team has a run in it -- a belief that never wavered despite the losing of June -- lives on.

“We know we got to beat the Brewers, so it's good to get one on the board there,” O’Neill said. “Day-by-day process, keep picking away.”