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As mighty Yankees arrive, Cardinals revitalized by adding 'right guys' for a playoff run

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Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jose Quintana (63) pitches in the sixth inning during a game between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol had reviewed video, mined scouting reports, and explored the universe of data available, mapping the constellations of spin rate and velocity, but there was one thing he could not glimpse about Jose Quintana until right before the lefty’s debut.

As Quintana walked from his warmup in the bullpen to the Cardinals’ dugout, about to make his first start for his new team, Marmol positioned himself to look into Quintana’s eyes.

“The human side,” Marmol said later. “Through the eyes you see what’s inside.”

The manager had a word for what he saw.

Determination.

“You look into the eyes of the Quintanas of the world, before that game starts, and it will give you goosebumps how bad he wants it,” Marmol said. “You look at anybody on the club right now, there’s a really good feeling going around. The guys are determined. It will be a fun little run.”

Two days after the Cardinals retooled the rotation at the trade deadline and recharged the clubhouse with both relief and reinforcements, Quintana became the first of the two new starters to debut. That look in his eyes quickly translated to what the Cardinals have been waiting to see on the field. With a steady hand, Quintana pitched six innings, allowed one run, and struck out seven to send the Cardinals toward a doubleheader sweep of the Cubs.

And into a first-place tie atop the National League Central. Before the trades, they trailed by three games.

“We want to get there and hopefully separate,” Nolan Arenado said.

Tyler O’Neill’s three-run homer in the seventh broke a tie and flung the Cardinals toward a 7-2 victory in the night game. Homers from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Gorman rallied the Cardinals from a three-run deficit to win the afternoon game when Lars Nootbaar singled home Arenado for a walk-off, 4-3 victory. Arenado scored the tying and winning run in Game 1, and he hit a two-run homer early in Game 2 to flip the score on the Cubs.

The Cardinals swept a doubleheader from the Cubs in St. Louis for the first time since August 1979, the same month actor Jason Momoa was born.

The doubleheader sweep, the series sweep, the vault into first place were all viewed within the clubhouse as affirmation of a new vibe. Marmol mentioned it at least twice. Players brought it up. Arenado said a large part of it has to do with the return of catcher Yadier Molina from injury and six weeks away. And the rest the Cardinals linked to the trade deadline, and the confirmation that comes from adding, not subtracting, and committing to several players, not trading them. As the best team in baseball, the Yankees, arrive for a rare regular-season visit to Busch Stadium, there is a sense around the Cardinals that they’re better positioned to be their best, if not yet playing at their best.

“It’s kind of like, alright, it’s time to just focus on trying to win as many ballgames as we can,” Arenado said.

“It’s meaningful, it really is,” Marmol said of the trade deadline. “Because the club is sitting there and you have identified what’s needed and then when you go get the pieces — not just pieces, but the right pieces. Both how they fit personality-wise in that clubhouse and then the skill set adds a ton of value to what they’re doing. We didn’t go get guys just to get guys. We got the right guys.”

They happen to be left guys.

The essential moves for the Cardinals were the acquisition of left-handed starters Quintana and Jordan Montgomery, who will debut Saturday against his former team, the Yankees. Both have had consistent seasons, above average ERA, and traits as pitchers that the Cardinals feel will be enhanced by a larger ballpark or an elite defense (or both). Montgomery was as shocked by the trade as the industry, knowing how unusual it is for a team cranking out the victories to subtract a stabilizing element from its pitching staff, let along its roster. Montgomery made a team-high 21 starts for the Yankees and knew what it meant to go to work each day with the game’s best offense as a tailwind. That’s a gust of confidence.

“I feel that same way here,” Montgomery said between games Thursday. “We’ve got Goldy. We’ve got Arenado. We’ve got bats up and down. And solid arms. I think we’re a pretty solid team. I just hope I can bring something that makes us a little better. I just like winning.”

Quality, consistent starting pitcher can be a source of confidence different than even the most robust offense offers. It’s there from the beginning.

Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas pitched 6 1/3 strong innings in Game 1 Thursday and allowed three runs, but he limited the trouble from there. When Marmol lifted him in the seventh for a reliever, the conversation on the mound was about how Mikolas had stopped the Cubs and bought the offense a chance to rally, if they could keep the top of the seventh scoreless. Rookie James Naile did with two groundouts. The Cardinals answered with three runs in the bottom of the inning and a new ballgame.

“I think it starts with your starter,” Marmol said. “Before that game starts and you know you’re going to have a shot. There is something to that — just knowing that you’re going to be in the game one way or the other. The offense builds off that. Today was a perfect example of that.”

Quintana followed Mikolas with six more innings, another quality start for the Cardinals, and he left the game with a one-run lead.

He got there by getting 16 outs from the final 17 batters he faced.

Molina and Quintana quickly sensed the crispness of his curveball and featured it four times as often as the changeup Quintana had been featuring. Quintana riddled the Cubs lineup with a mix of fastballs that reached 94.1 mph, the curve that dove in at an average of 78.5 mph, and then the mix of sinkers and changes to change eye levels and timing. Quintana got five strikeouts on his curveball. But in the third inning, he struck out the side, finishing the at-bats with three different pitches.

P. J. Higgins nicked a curveball that was caught for strike 3.

Nick Madrigal took a check swing on a four-seam fastball in for strike 3.

Leadoff hitter Christopher Morel took a sinker for strike 3.

“I feel really good with all of my stuff, and that inning I felt really good when I struck out the side,” Quintana said. “I think we kept reading swings and right away saw what the pitch was (doing). That was really cool. I got that feeling and trust in it.”

There was something lurking beyond what Marmol saw in his eyes, or maybe below that determination. Quintana described it after the game.

He was nervous.

First place and first impressions mean a lot.

“Every game matters a lot,” he said. “Especially this one for me — my debut. I tried to get into the team right now, and do the things the right way. This is the most important thing for me. All the nervousness I had at the beginning because it’s part of the game. But as soon as the game starts, I just focused on executing my stuff, like I’ve been doing.”

A win in his first Cardinals start slipped away after he left the game, 86 pitches and six innings added to his baseball card. Jordan Hicks walked the first two batters he faced in the seventh inning, and coupled with a couple groundballs and an infield single those walks became a tie game, 2-2. O’Neill vaporized that with his three-run homer.

He carried the bat almost all the way to first base before tossing it aside where first-base coach Stubby Clapp retrieved it. O’Neill said he probably was just “gripping it so tight.” He had recently been reminded that he had not hit a homer at Busch since opening day.

The team has undergone some changes since them.

But not the team’s expectations.

To calm the wild swings of their performances, from series to series, and the fuel a true run for the NL Central title, they needed to address an innings deficit and get more starts like the two they had Thursday. To do that, they needed to get more starters. Two to be precise. Quintana pitched as advertised, as needed.

Or, as Arenado put it succinctly.

“That’s why we got him.”

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