by SCOTT MANDEL
NEW YORK – The Cardinals arrived from the Midwest late Sunday after a few solid performances back home, some strong starring roles that got lauded regionally, and had three days in the city, right as Broadway reopened, to seize what they craved — their big break.
Written out of the playoff script just weeks ago and stuck in the wings as, at most, an extra, they made the most of their moment on the Citi stage and put on a show.
They made it here. Can they make it anywhere?
The Cardinals, suddenly the scene-stealers in this wild-card dramedy, hit four home runs Wednesday, Lars Nootbaar robbed another at the wall, and they completed a sweep of the New York Mets, nailing their lines in an 11-4 victory at Citi Field. The series sweep was a first for the Cardinals at the Mets’ current ballpark and first in Queens since 2001. With Cincinnati’s loss Wednesday to Pittsburgh, the Cardinals moved 1 ½ games ahead of the receding Reds for the National League’s second wild-card berth.
The Cardinals leave the Big City in their best position in the standings in months and playing their best baseball of the year.
“Ultimately, the best baseball is when you’re doing it all together,” manager Mike Shildt said. “You’re getting the hitting, consistent at-bats. You’re getting the quality pitching. It’s just about doing it all together at one time.”
The Cardinals started fast Wednesday and finished strong. They had a five-run lead before starter Jon Lester threw a pitch, and by the end of the eighth the Cardinals had stacked on four solo homers. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, who have both mused about having their swings in harmony at some point this season, hit a homer each in the seventh inning. Harrison Bader, back home and relishing every moment, hit a solo homer in the fourth. After touching home, he gave high fives to his mother, father, and Uncle Joseph, who were seated by the on-deck circle.
Edmundo Sosa put an exclamation point on his eventful evening with a homer in the eighth for the Cardinals’ 25th run of their three-day visit.
The Cardinals’ shortstop had a role in almost every scene. He singled in the first inning and his break from the base on Bader’s floating single to center allowed him to score from first. In the second, he stole a hit with a back-to-home plate catch, cradled fundamentally with two hands, of course. He committed an error later and upstaged that with a homer. Sosa played with such exuberance, and his multi-tasking personified how the Cardinals played all series. They smothered the Mets defensively. They added on late.
“He’s representing that mindset of keep going, let’s keep going, you can’t have enough,” Shildt said. “You’ve got to be hungry.”
If Sosa had a night, the leading players in the lineup had an awakening.
Only a few times in cameos, if ever, have the Cardinals had Arenado, Goldschmidt, and Tyler O’Neill performing at the same time. O’Neill’s recent move in the lineup, sandwiched now between Arenado and Goldschmidt, has animated the offense — but mostly in solo acts. Arenado provided the key runs that downed the Reds. O’Neill brought home the winning run in consecutive games against the Dodgers. They held a concert in Queens. The Cardinals’ trio went 16-for-40 (.400) with four homers. They had six RBIs in the first eight innings Wednesday to give them a dozen for the series, and they scored 13 of the Cardinals’ 25 runs. With Sosa playing his part and the lineup driving the plot, the twist came in the seventh.
The bottom of that inning was a snapshot of the series and the impossible time the Mets had getting by, over, around, or through the Cardinals’ defense.
Veteran lefty Andrew Miller did not retire a batter, and while that invited the Mets’ best chance to erase the Cardinals’ hearty lead it also put in motion the moment that would drop the curtain on it. Shildt pulled Miller in favor of his fireman T. J. McFarland, and to get a second inning from him swapped rookies in right field. Nootbaar entered and Dylan Carlson exited — simply because he made the final out of the previous inning. What dramatic timing.
Two batters and two outs later, the Mets still had two runners on and two-time Home Run Derby champ Pete Alonso at the plate. Alonso connected for a high, soaring ball out toward right field.
At the start of each series, coach Willie McGee takes the outfielders on a tour of the outfield wall — throwing balls up against the fences and padding to see the caroms. They trace the angles of the warning track, and here Nootbaar was again, racing back toward the deepest facet in right of Citi Field’s irregular outfield wall.
“It gave us a couple of more feet of breathing room,” Nootbaar said. “That’s always nice.”
He used it.
He needed it.
Nootbaar jumped at the wall and pulled what would have been a three-run homer back for a third out. Bader hopped in center as if making the catch with Nootbaar. Arenado jumped into the air at third once he saw Nootbaar had it. The third baseman then watched the replay on the scoreboard — and if he squinted he could see that Nootbaar had his tongue out as he made the leaping catch.
“We have little league pictures … with my tongue out,” Nootbaar said. “I could never find a good action shot of myself. So that’s always been that thing. It’s natural. I wish I didn’t do it.”
Before they got the glove, the Cardinals had plenty of bat. Not wasting a New York minute, the Cardinals were three batters into the game when O’Neill delivered a two-run double. That lead grew to 5-0 by the time Lester (6-6) took the mound, and it gave him license to be aggressive in the strike zone. In six innings, the lefty did not walk a batter and used the Mets’ eagerness against them for seven strikeouts in earning his 199th career win. For the fifth consecutive start, Lester allowed two or fewer earned runs, and while the Mets nicked him for two homers, the lack of walks meant they never had a rally going. All three runs came in different innings.
Three runs almost came on one swing.
Javier Baez, Lester’s teammate for years at Wrigley Field, took a mighty swing in the fifth and sent Lester’s pitch to straightaway center. With two on, the ball seemed to have the distance to score three. It traveled about 406 feet and would have if not for Bader standing and jumping at the wall near where it reads, “408 feet.” The runs, the catches, the sweep, the wild-card lead left only one more thing for the Cardinals to do in their visit to New York.
They had to get a slice.
Bader was chomping on two as he came into the postgame interview.
“New York style pizza is delicious. New York style pizza — it’s just good for the soul,” Bader said, folding two slices together, cheese to cheese. “You earn the sandwich.”