ATLANTA — In between games of a Father’s Day split doubleheader that whiplashed the Cardinals from what’s possible to what’s been the pattern, Nolan Arenado stood in the visitors’ dugout, eye black not yet freshly reapplied, and described how a rainout washed away some tension.
“Not going to lie — it felt good,” the Cardinals third baseman said of the sudden off day Saturday that led to Sunday’s doubleheader. “I think everyone relaxed a little bit.”
What followed was both reassurance — and reminder.
Arenado homered in the first inning of Game 1 to hurtle the Cardinals toward a 9-1 victory against Atlanta with an outburst of offense behind Adam Wainwright’s seven-inning complete game. Paul Goldschmidt joined the chorus with a three-run homer, and the Cardinals scored runs more in seven innings than they had combined in their previous seven days.
Momentum proved as fickle as the opposing pitcher’s curveball. A few hours later Goldschmidt’s infield single in the sixth gave the Cardinals their first hit, out of two, in a 1-0 evening loss to the Braves. It was the second time in the four-game series that Goldschmidt’s late-game single was the first hit.
Before the ink had time to dry on their chocked box score from the first game, scarce ink was needed at all to fill the blanks for the second game of a split doubleheader at Truist Field.
“It’s the offense we talk about that was on display,” manager Mike Shildt said. ‘That’s the frustrating part of it is when we don’t put consistent at-bats over any period. It’s become one guy is going well and another guy not as much. This group starts to put that continuity and consistency together and you see what you saw in the first game. And that’s reasonable — nine might be a little much — but, gosh, it’s what we’re capable of.”
In the nightcap, Braves lefty Drew Smyly did what the afternoon pitchers could not: contain the middle of the Cardinals’ order. He got some help from third baseman Austin Riley.
Toggling between a fastball he could use to change eye levels and a curveball he could use to cross them, Smyly took what the first game proved and flipped it. The only Cardinals to reach second base in Smyly’s 5 2/3 scoreless innings was Goldschmidt. He walked with one out, and he likely would have been a game-tying run if not for some sleight of hand from Riley. Arenado laced a pitch headed for the left-field corner before Riley snared it for an out. Goldschmidt and Arenado finished a combined two for five in the second game, and not one ball they hit escaped the infield.
Most of the balls they hit in the first game did.
Arenado’s 13th homer of the season snapped an 0-for-20 stretch for the cleanup hitter and gave Wainwright all the runs he needed in Game 1. When the Braves went to reliever Josh Tomlin, Goldschmidt drilled the first pitch Tomlin threw for a three-run homer, and Arenado whacked the next for a double. They finished Game 1 a combined five for seven with a home run each and seven RBIs combined. In the dugout between games, talking to the Post-Dispatch, Arenado tried to think of a game in which the corner infielders were in synch.
“We start hitting the way we know how, we’re going to win some games,” Arenado said. “We’re going to be right where we need to be. That seems like the first game we hit homers together in the same game, driving in runs together. When he does good, I’m not. And when I do good — it seems like we’ve been off. We feel like we both haven’t felt like we can.”
Still a few starts from feeling at full strength after a second back issue, Kwang Hyun Kim had arguably his finest start for the Cardinals in Game 2. It upended on one pitch. Wainwright’s complete-game win against his first team and in front of friends and family set the Cardinals up to be aggressive with their bullpen in the second seven-inning game. Kim (1-5) was unlikely to take a second at-bat, and he carried a one-run game through the fourth.
The run — the game’s decisive run — came on a homer by Ronald Acuna Jr. The MVP candidate became the sixth-fastest in the majors to reach 100 career homers.
Kim fell behind, 0-2, and virtually put a slider on a tee that Acuna drove to center.
“I still have the mistake pitch to Acuna in my head,” Kim said, as translated by Craig Choi. “I knew at that point I had to pitch a strike. I tried to throw a backdoor slider, but I didn’t do that. His swing was good. I regret not pitching strikes for those first two pitches.”
What Smyly (4-3) did for the Braves in the second game to stay ahead in the count and strike out five, Wainwright (5-5) did even better to the Braves in the afternoon game. The Cardinals’ veteran righthander struck out a season-high 11. He twice got Acuna on a curveball, and the one run he allowed in seven innings came when Freddie Freeman stole home as part of a double steal in the fourth inning. Yadier Molina answered with an RBI single in the next inning that tied him with Johnny Bench for career hits, at 2,048.
Wainwright’s win momentarily revived the Cardinals’ chances of splitting the series and scrubbing the taste of two sour games to start in Atlanta. The veteran has come to relish the holiday games and improved to 8-0 when pitching in part of a doubleheader.
He sensed the rain was a needed refresh.
“I think (Saturday) was a huge rainout for us,” Wainwright said. “We had a couple of really bad games in a row, didn’t play well on any side of the ball, not crisp, not pitching well, not taking good at-bats, and a day like that — off day, unexpected — can really flip a script.”
It’s just out of his hands for a few days.
After another off day Monday, the Cardinals begin a two-day visit to Detroit and a stretch of games against languishing teams. They have a chance to prove that what they saw from the lineup early on Father’s Day was more than just a lightning strike — gone as quick as it arrived. And that the forecasted storm is still ahead.
“It’s no lie — we haven’t played great the last few weeks,” Goldschmidt said. “The important thing is to keep working hard, keep trying to get better, keep trying to take it day by day and win some games, of course. Eventually, you’re going break out of it. That’s just how the season goes. There are ups and downs. Hopefully, there will be some ups going forward.”