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Carlson, Naughton rise to meet a challenge, lift Cardinals from road trip doldrums

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Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson catches a fly ball hit by the Braves' Michael Harris II in the ninth inning of a game on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in Atlanta. Carlson was able to throw out a runner at first base for a double play.

ATLANTA — When the ball left Michael Harris II’s bat at 110.2 mph, the second-fastest of any ball hit in the game, the immediate thought in the Cardinals dugout was: gulp.

The Cardinals and Braves had seesawed through a riveting 8 ½ innings Thursday at Truist Park, knotted at a run apiece. Harris provided the tying run with solo homer in the seventh. In the ninth, the winning run was at first base and Harris’ line drive was bound for the gap, cruising toward a walk-off win and a series sweep of the Cardinals. The moment the ball came “off the bat,” manager Oliver Marmol said, “I thought, ‘No shot.’” The metrics agreed. The expected batting average of ball hit that hard, in that direction, and at that height was .890.

Dylan Carlson gave chase. Thrust into center field with Harrison Bader on the injured list, Carlson has been asked at times this season to take on more a prominent role, be it in the field or in the lineup. The Cardinals have looked for him to rise to the occasion.

This time, literally.

Carlson jumped and stretched to catch the liner near the warning track. His momentum carried him to the wall, where he turned and started a relay throw that doubled-up the runner at first and ended the inning. Extras beckoned, and Carlson delivered the RBI in the top of the 11th inning for a 3-2 victory that ended the losing streak, avoided a sweep, rescued the Cardinals from a 1-5 road trip, and hinged around a double play that didn’t seem plausible.

“That was a treat,” Marmol said.

What Carlson saved, lefty Packy Naughton closed for the first save of his professional career. Naughton followed his 2 1/3 innings Tuesday with his first save opportunity of the season. A game dominated by velocity – the 12 strikeouts from Atlanta’s hotshot rookie Spencer Strider, the 27 pitches at 100 mph or faster from Jordan Hicks, the lightning bolt snared by Carlson – ended with Harris hitting a meek groundball on an 80-mph slider.

When given heightened roles in new spots during this sideways road trip, all Naughton and Carlson did in the opportunities was exactly how he made the catch in center.

Rise to meet it. But, figuratively.

“That’s what athletics is,” Naughton said. “It’s getting your shot and trying to make the most of it.”

Both just had to wait their turn.

Naughton didn’t appear until the bottom of the 11th, after co-closers Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley had been exhausted, each allowing a run. Carlson did not enter the game until the seventh and still had time to lace three singles, all from the right side of the plate, and make the Cardinals’ play of the series.

“He’s a super quiet kid, but he’s got way more grit than he lets on,” Marmol said. “There’s an edge to him that allows him to do things that you’re seeing. When you ask him to do more – go play center, go hit second, those type of things – there’s something inside him that he takes it as a challenge and an opportunity, not a threat.”

With his third three-strikeout game of the road trip Wednesday, Carlson did not start the game Thursday, the switch hitter’s left-handed swing at the moment considered a bad matchup against Strider. Not that any Cardinal was a good matchup against the rookie right-hander. By the end of the third inning, Strider had struck out every batter in the Cardinals’ starting lineup except Nolan Arenado. His first nine outs of the game were strikeouts, all of them ending with a fastball that sizzled between 97.2-mph and 99.9 mph. In the sixth, Strider added two more strikeouts when he whipsawed to his slider.

The Cardinals got one runner to second base in Strider’s six innings. He was stranded there when the inning ended on one of the Cardinals’ 19 strikeouts.

“Let’s not forget that the first guy was throwing 130 mph,” Marmol said. “You get beat three nights in a row here, then you’ve got to face a guy throwing the way he did.”

Cardinals rookie Matthew Liberatore, needing a rebound from a faulty start in Philadelphia, kept pace with Strider’s results, if not his fastball or strikeouts. Liberatore did let loose an uptick in velocity and was able to reach an area of the strike zone that he says will be a “big-ticket thing for me.” He and pitching coach Mike Maddux have talked since spring training about Liberatore’s need to wedge his fastball lower in the zone, to operate consistently at that lower edge – for both efficiency and effectiveness. It’s a new angle for Liberatore, and he said Thursday was one of the first times he got there consistently.

Several times, Liberatore sidestepped trouble with a groundball – none bigger than in his fourth and final inning. The Braves opened the inning with the surest signs of trouble: a leadoff walk and a follow-up double. Atlanta had two runners in scoring position, Liberatore had not outs, and the Cardinals had the kind of inning that “unravels,” as one official said.

It didn’t.

Liberatore met the moment with a slider that caught Adam Duvall chasing. The Cardinals lefty then got consecutive groundouts to end the inning without either runner advancing the scoreboard unflinching, still blinking at 0-0.

“I’ve got two options,” Liberatore said. “I’m going to make the pitch anyway. I can either do it with the conviction and confidence and see what I want to happen happen before it happens, or I can hope for things to happen. I went out there and I said, ‘I’m going to throw it with confidence.’ And if I get beat, I can lay my head on a pillow knowing that I threw what I wanted to throw.”

Once Strider was out of the game, the Cardinals took a lead with a sacrifice fly and lost it in the bottom of the inning on Harris’ homer. Nolan Gorman put the Cardinals’ first rally in motion with a leadoff double against lefty Will Smith, and Carlson kept it going with a single off Smith. The Cardinals’ outfielder had spent the first half of the game preparing for the possibility he would enter the game when the Braves’ lefties did. He did not expect to only face lefties in three at-bats.

Atlanta’s relief choices played into his handedness. Carlson entered the game with a .933 OPS from the right side of the plate. His first single moved Gorman to third to score on Albert Pujols’ sacrifice fly. His third single scored Nolan Arenado, who started the 11th inning by rule at second base, to give the Cardinals their third lead of the game. Carlson’s three hits upped his season performance against lefties to 20-for-55 (.364).

Off the bench, he thrived.

In center, he changed the game with his second leaping catch in as many days.

“I always felt like my game has room to grow and evolve,” Carlson said. “Just playing center field is an example. Going out there and making plays. I don’t get to do it every day. So learning and going with it, taking advantage of the opportunity. I feel like I can grow and evolve in a lot of areas, small things, baserunning. Even just finding ways within the game to get better at all times.”

In the ninth, with that walk-off runner at first, the approach in the outfield was aggressive. A ball over his head is a loss. A ball that falls in the gap could be a loss. A ball that was both over his head and in the gap – well, as the dugout thought there was little chance of a catch, Carlson had one thought: “Got to make a play.”

Got to get the chance first, and then seize it.

“Finding a way to win the game was the biggest thing,” Carlson said.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman describes Hicks’ importance to the Cardinals heading into this huge stretch. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Jaime Garcia! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

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