ATLANTA — If there’s an edge the Cardinals cultivated as a trait and kept jigsaw sharp this season it’s their instinct to exploit an opportunity. Give them an inch, they’ll take an inning. Give them a walk, they’ll go for a run. Give them a weekend against a weakened rival, they’ll take a division. Give them an early break, they’ll take a series.
Give them a destination, and now they’ll try to take a pennant.
A foul tip that slipped out of a mitt and an error that glanced off a glove unleashed the Cardinals for a historic first inning as they raged for 10 runs on their way to a 13-1 victory Wednesday against Atlanta in a winner-take-all National League Division Series Game 5 at SunTrust Park.
Before the Braves’ second pitcher of the inning could get the second out of the game, every hitter in the Cardinals’ lineup had scored at least a run. The emphatic finish to the series sent the Cardinals into the NL Championship Series for the first time since they reached four consecutive from 2011 to 2014. They’ll face Washington in Game 1 on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Game 2 will be there Saturday afternoon.
What began Wednesday with Dexter Fowler nicking a pitch to stay alive for a walk continued with three two-run doubles and ended with the first 10-run first-inning in postseason history.
“We take advantage of any mistake you give us,” said catcher Yadier Molina, his clothes drenched in champagne but his eyes protected by ski goggles. “That’s what we do. We take advantage. You can say that. You can say that we don’t back down. You can say that we come back. You can say that we’ve got fight. You can say a lot of things about this club, and the only thing that I know for sure is that we’ve got the heart and we’ve got the mind to do whatever we want to do.”
Manager Mike Shildt put it even blunter in some technicolor comments to the club immediately after the win, as captured and shared on social media by a rookie.
“No one (tinkers) with us — ever,” he said.
Although the NLDS was certain to end Wednesday, the Cardinals did not pack for a trip, did not have a charter flight to catch that night, did not have any other plans but to stay in Atlanta for the night, win, lose, or play 19 innings. The only reason they would know for sure where they were going was if they lost the first of two Games 5 in the National League on Wednesday, and that was not on the itinerary.
They wanted to see where a win would take them.
At Atlanta’s expense — it has been 18 years since the team of the 1990s won a series in the 2000s — the Cardinals advanced to the best-of-seven series for the 10th time since 2000. They got there with a postseason rookie on the mound, Jack Flaherty, and a one-two combo of October vets and playoff newcomers driving a 10-run inning. Rookie Tommy Edman had the two-run double that broke open the first inning, and past playoff performers Fowler and Kolten Wong followed with two-run doubles.
Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz began his start within something he did not do once in seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in Game 2: He walked a batter. Expecting a taut, low-scoring game, Wong, the second batter, dropped a bunt to at least move Fowler into scoring position. What followed was a cannonball run of offense, all of which hinged around an error at first by Gold Glove-winner Freddie Freeman. Braves manager Brian Snitker said of all the possible scenarios he and his coaches discussed what happened “was not even on the radar for us.”
The Cardinals’ 10 runs blistered the previous record for runs scored in the first inning of a playoff game, besting the 1958 Milwaukee Braves who got two doubles from Red Schoendienst in a seven-run first inning vs. the Yankees.
With no home runs in the 10-run outburst, third-base coach Ron “Pop” Warner’s arm was a pinwheel waving them home. He still had enough strength to lift a champagne bottle.
“That never gets tiring,” he smiled.
“We’ll take advantage of all the opportunities that you give us,” infielder Matt Carpenter said, through his champagne soaked beard. “An error. First inning. A couple of miscues. Whack, whack, whack, and the next thing you know it’s 10-0.”
Before the game, veteran Adam Wainwright, who had started the Cardinals previous two NLDS game 5s, “surveyed” the clubhouse. He was looking for nerves. Instead, he found challengers. Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, and John Gant held a putting contest in the long hallway adjacent to the clubhouse. (Wainwright insists he won.) Several players said they left a pregame meeting with coaches Jeff Albert and Jobel Jimenez “comfortable” in their plan for Foltynewicz. Around every corner he walked or down every hall he putted, Wainwright saw “very, very, very confident” teammates.
How much of that sourced from their starter?
“Didn’t hurt,” said Wainwright, his voice hoarse from cheering by the end of the first inning. “Certainly did not hurt everybody’s confidence.”
In the first clincher start of his young career, Flaherty had a bases-loaded walk and an RBI before he threw a pitch. He had two plate appearances before he threw his third inning. And he still offered the Braves next to nothing. A leadoff walk quickly fizzled into a scoreless first. He retired 11 out of 12 as the Cardinals added to their lead, and the one run against Flaherty in six innings came on Josh Donaldson’s solo homer in the fourth. With the bloated lead, the Cardinals intended to keep Flaherty’s pitch count low and hasten his readiness for his NLCS start. In the fifth, however, Flaherty hit Ronald Acuna Jr., who irritated the Cardinals throughout the series. Molina stood between Flaherty and Acuna as Acuna took his base, and then between the two again as Flaherty ended the inning with Acuna at third. The timing of the bruise was noted.
“He took exception to getting hit,” Flaherty said. “We go in, we’re going to go in tight.”
When Flaherty got into the dugout he made his case to remain in the game, to cleanse his palate with a strong sixth after the wobbly fifth. Shildt agreed, though it meant Flaherty would have to hit in the next inning — and stand there for whatever Atlanta had in mind. He struck out on three pitches. He then retired the Braves in order, on 10 pitches.
Flaherty spent the prelude to his Game 5 start reminding anyone who asked that the Cardinals “have been playing winner-take-all games all September.” He likened his Game 5 start to his Game 162 start against the Cubs — when the Cardinals needed a win to take the National League Central. Pushed to the final day, they lashed out for a 9-0 win.
After pushing the Braves to the final game, they romped for the biggest margin of victory ever in a decisive playoff game. They sense an opening. Sense a trend?
“We’re going to find out,” said Paul Goldschmidt upon reaching his first NLCS. “We’re probably going to need it again. Chances are we’re going to play another elimination game. If we have to win a 1-0 game, we can do that. If we score a lot, we’ll win that way, too. In the playoffs it can come down to one pitch. It was one inning today. There’s one game that writes the script.”
As the Cardinals, tugging on special branded T-shirts and logo-festooned caps, swarmed together and bounced around the mound to a tune of their making, the SunTrust Park speakers drowned out the celebration with The Beatles, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Fowler got it started in the first place. Flaherty took that lead by the hand.
Cards go on.
La-la, how the Cards go on.