Cards pad WC lead on O'Neill's go-ahead HR

September 19th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- As he ran out into his position in left field, felt he needed to give a tip of the cap and some sort of acknowledgement to the 40,626 at Busch Stadium on Saturday night, and particularly to those in his corner. 

Moments earlier, he sent the grand majority of them into a tizzy -- a ball he willed, with muscle and with yells, to leave the yard.

"That ball's just got to get up, it's just got to go,” O’Neill told himself. “It's got to go for the boys. That's it."

O’Neill’s two-run blast in the eighth inning rocketed the Cardinals to a 3-2 victory over the Padres. It was his 28th long ball of the season, a year in which he has shown his front office and his fan base the complete player he can be, but this was one that gave the Cardinals some more breathing room in the National League Wild Card race.

St. Louis, riding a seven-game winning streak and with one loss in its last 10 games, holds a two-game lead over the Reds, who lost on Saturday. San Diego 2 1/2 games back, now is tied with Philadelphia.

From the pitfalls of June to the postseason push of late August and early September, the Cardinals have made themselves the team to beat down the stretch -- an almost eerily similar parallel to the magical run the club made in 2011. More than 30 members of that squad were at Busch Stadium on Saturday night, commemorating the 10-year anniversary of that achievement, and they bore witness to a win that harkens back to 10 Septembers ago.

“There is a commonality,” said , who tossed six innings of two-run ball in front of his former teammates. “But you know, we were 10 1/2 back in ’11. I don't want to cheapen what that team did … [but] we've got ourselves in a really good situation here too, and there's some similarities.”

Said manager Mike Shildt: “The night had magic to it before the game started.”

A night that begged for a magical ending got it when O’Neill sent the third-largest crowd at Busch Stadium this season into a euphoric haze. By the time Nolan Arenado popped out a batter later -- the Cardinals’ only at-bat of the game with a lead -- gone were the worries of June struggles and of not cashing in on two prime opportunities to score in the fourth and sixth innings.

That O’Neill was in position to take that at-bat in the eighth inning was in itself an impressive feat. Twice, the left fielder lost the benefit of the doubt in the midst of a rally via a called third strike for Padres starter Yu Darvish, who whiffed nine Cardinals.

“I thought a couple calls to me were off the plate, but that’s [the zone], and I got to adjust as a player,” O’Neill said. “That was the thing with me, is just trying to stay disciplined as I can and not miss a pitch to hit. That was it. Just maturing, that’s it.”

Maturing in several facets. O’Neill’s home run gave him 477 plate appearances this season in his first go of a full 162-game schedule. He’s hitting .281 with a .886 OPS.

O’Neill, a Gold Glover in 2020, entered the ’21 season with a .229 career batting average and .713 OPS in 450 plate appearances across three seasons.

“The front office has always said that they think this guy is going to be the next 40/40 guy,” Wainwright said, admitting some of the strikeout numbers that followed O’Neill in his early goings cast some doubt. “ … That's what's called growing up in a clubhouse and growing up as a complete player. And that is exactly what he is, is a complete player.”

A complete player, serving up smiles to one of the most complete crowds at Busch Stadium on the season, potentially just a peek at what’s to come as the temperatures cool.

“That was the best crowd of the year. That was the best crowd that we’ve seen since 2019, without question, and they were on their feet, rowdy,” said Wainwright, who was lying facedown on a trainer’s table when O’Neill hit his home run. “I know that we played some wretched ball throughout this year. …

“Thanks for sticking with us. I know it’s been frustrating. We’ve been frustrating for you, but we love you. Glad you’re back.”