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Dylan Carlson is at the center of the Cardinals' new-look outfield

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St. Louis Cardinals' Dylan Carlson is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two-run home run during the fifth inning of the team's baseball game against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo / Scott Kane)

The Cardinals, after several years of searching, found a starting outfield in 2021 that they figured would be together for several years. From left to right, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Dylan Carlson smacked 68 home runs and played Gold Glove defense, with the first two named actually winning the hardware.

But in 2022, that group lasted just more than two months. In a 6-4 loss at Boston on June 19, O’Neill had three hits before hurting his hamstring. Bader and Carlson had lined up next to him for the final time.

On June 27, Bader went out with plantar fasciitis, never again to play for the Cardinals this season. And now he is on his way to the New York Yankees in a deal for left-hander Jordan Montgomery.

Your St. Louis Cardinals outfield, from left to right on Tuesday night, was Corey Dickerson, Carlson and Lars Nootbaar.

Dickerson is holding that left-field position until O’Neill comes back from still another injury. But Carlson is going to be the club’s center fielder, presumably, for years to come. And Nootbaar has a chance to seize a large portion of right-field duty.

Carlson, as you may have seen, has been big on social media lately. He was deemed the player the Cardinals would not give up to acquire Juan Soto from Washington. Whether Carlson was “the one,” or not, isn’t truly known but president of baseball operations John Mozeliak made sure over the weekend in Washington that Carlson knew he wasn’t going anywhere.

That “weight,” lifted off his shoulders, Carlson, who had been playing exemplary defense in center field already, turned in a sliding catch in short center, made a running catch in left-center and hit a 431-foot, two-run homer in a 6-0 drilling of the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium.

Carlson’s replacement in right, Nootbaar, had three hits and a walk to help back Adam Wainwright’s seven shutout innings.

Carlson, reflecting on Mozeliak’s chat with him, said, “This game is hard enough as it is. It definitely was a cool thing for him to do.

“He said, ‘We believe in you and you’re going to be with us,’’’ recalled Carlson. “He didn’t have to do that. He could have let me go out there and just play and kind of have that (trade talk) lurking.”

Wainwright said he felt that many of the Cardinals’ young players would benefit by not being thrown into a deal for Soto.

“We could have had one of the best players on the planet if we wanted to get rid of them at the trade deadline,” he said. “And we didn’t want to. We believe in these guys.”

Carlson said he had been able to draw on playing next to Bader for a couple of years.

“He’s an incredible center fielder. I was able to learn a lot from him — how serious he takes playing defense,” said Carlson.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career to be around guys like that. Willie (former center fielder and current coach Willie McGee) and then Jim Edmonds was around, too.

“All different styles, too. Willie played deep. Jim played in. Bader kind of plays all over. Just to see the different ways everyone’s done it is pretty unique.”

Carlson, still only 23, is in his third year as a regular. But he hadn’t played much center field professionally until the last couple of years although he said McGee, as a minor league instructor, put him on the right path early in his career.

“Today was a great example,” said manager Oliver Marmol, “of what (Carlson) is capable of doing, and he’ll do it for a long time.

“We don’t even know what’s possible for this kid.”

As for Carlson moving over to center from right, Marmol said, “When you’re given an opportunity at this level, you either show that you can or you can’t. We went into it with the thought of ‘show us that you can.’ And he did exactly that.”

Paul Goldschmidt, who drove in three runs and hit his 25th homer, said, “We really hadn’t seen him play center field in the big leagues, and he’s made some unbelievable plays.”

Nootbaar, 24, has hit safely in five of his past six starts and had jumped his average to a more reasonable .230 from the .100s.

“He’s a confident player,” said Carlson. “You give the guy some reps, some opportunities, you’re going to see some good things.”

Marmol said Nootbaar will have to chance to run with the right-field job.

“Absolutely,” Marmol said. “You’re seeing some really good swings from ‘Noot.’ He’s taking his walks when needed. He isn’t chasing. He’s playing a good right field. We’re seeing a good version of ‘Noot’ right now.”

Looking at Bader’s vacant locker next to his, Nootbaar said, “With Harry leaving — that’s my guy — I’m feeling pretty good about it,” said Nootbaar.

The Cardinals’ soon-to-be record-setting battery made its first appearance together since June 11, when catcher Yadier Molina, just off the injured list, walked in from the bullpen with Wainwright for the 317th time. That pushed them into second place on the career charts, seven behind Detroit’s tandem of Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan and one ahead of the Braves’ Warren Spahn and Del Crandall.

Wainwright, holding the Cubs to six hits, “set the tone for what this rotation needs to look like,” said Marmol.

Wainwright (8-8), who passed the 2,500-inning mark, scored his 192nd career win, eight shy of 200. He should have 11 or 12 starts to try to make it.

“What do you think I’m going to say?” said Wainwright. “We’re going to go for it.”

After Chicago’s Seiya Suzuki fanned for the second out of the first inning, Molina threw his own strike to second baseman Tommy Edman, cutting down Rafael Ortega, who had been running on the pitch.

“Just vintage, right away,” said Carlson. “It made everyone feel right at home. (Molina’s) presence around here, his leadership, his attitude ... it’s something we’re fortunate to have and something not many clubhouses have.”

“Like it was meant to be,” Goldschmidt said of the Wainwright-Molina combination being reunited. 

“They’re like one person out there. They probably don’t even need the Pitchcom. They just know what to throw.”

Wainwright said, simply, “(Molina) is the greatest catcher of our lifetime.”

Although he pitched shutout ball, Wainwright said his stuff was “terrible,” allowing that his curveball, his best pitch, was “just OK.”

He praised Molina for his ability to gently “frame” pitches but joked that he wished Molina’s glove would offer up a sound when Wainwright’s pitches hit it.

“A catcher’s glove is supposed to pump you up,” joked Wainwright. “It’s supposed to go, ‘Pow!' And make you feel good about it. When he catches it, it’s like hitting a pillow. That’s the one drawback of him having the softest hands ever. He doesn’t pump you up very much.”

Molina handled his 153rd shutout, second only to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, the noted St. Louisan.

But Wainwright admitted he felt that Molina might not come back from Puerto Rico after he had gone home hurt, and a little depressed, about a month ago. “He had that feel about him,” said Wainwright. “He had to work through some things. But I’m glad he’s back.”

Nolan Arenado cracked his 20th homer, a 406-foot shot to Big Mac Land, in the seventh. He reached the 20-home run plateau for the seventh time in his career, with the other six all being 34 or over. The Cardinals have homered in 11 consecutive games, one off their longest streak of the season.

Newcomer Chris Stratton worked a scoreless ninth, inducing a game-ending double play, and also recorded a strikeout.

Marmol had a method for using Stratton, who had just come from Pittsburgh. “It was a good opportunity to get him out there in front of this crowd (44,344) and allow him to record that last out and get a feeling for what it’s really like here,” said Marmol.

Stratton appreciated the gesture. 

"After taking a step back and looking ... yeah, that was really cool," said Stratton. 

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