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Catch and release: Dazzling defense early sends Wainwright, Cardinals to 5-1 win vs. Marlins

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St. Louis Cardinals' Paul DeJong rounds third base on the way to scoring during the second inning of the team's baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)

MIAMI — The cleats Paul Goldschmidt wears are Nike size 14, and there might be a little extra wiggle room in there for moments like Tuesday when every added inch helps change a game.

In the first inning at loanDepot Park, Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright walked two of the first four Marlins he faced and then left a curveball over the plate that Avisail Garcia rocketed down the third-base line. Nolan Arenado went to his right, gloved the grounder, bobbled the transfer momentarily, and threw from foul territory toward Goldschmidt at first. Arenado “ran two or three miles on that ball,” Wainwright said. And Goldschmidt had only a foot to spare on the catch.

The Cardinals’ first baseman steadied himself with his right hand as he dove to scoop Arenado’s throw, all while keeping the tip of his cleat against the bag. Goldschmidt said with two on and two out he “didn’t want to say we were on our heels.” But he got the out by a toe.

It’s not a stretch to claim that play put the win within reach.

“It’s a game-changer right there,” catcher Yadier Molina said. “That ball goes through, and it’s a different ballgame.”

From there, the Cardinals struck immediately for two runs and Wainwright wasn’t threatened again until he had a five-run lead on the way to a 5-1 victory against Miami. Albert Pujols doubled, singled, and scored from first on Tommy Edman’s triple to push the Cardinals out to a 4-0 lead by the end of the third inning. Goldschmidt added two hits to his big stretch, and the Cardinals chocked the box score with three doubles, two stolen bases, and their 13th win in their past 16 games against the Marlins.

Wainwright and Molina moved into third place all-time with their 307th start as a battery, and they moved within a win of tying a major-league record for a tandem. The victory was the Cardinals’ 201st in a game when Wainwright and Molina play catch, and that’s one shy of the mark set by Braves’ duo Warren Spahn and Del Crandall. Molina collected his 1,192nd win at catcher, breaking a tie with Carlton Fisk and putting him behind only Ivan Rodriguez (1,254).

“The battery mark is awesome,” Wainwright said. “What really speaks volumes to us is winning. So, that’s the most important stat there is — winning games. We’ve won a lot of games together.”

One of the few chances the Marlins had to throw Wainwright (2-1) out of sync came before he threw a pitch. Novice leadoff hitter Jesus Sanchez had left his thumb guard behind in the dugout, so right before first pitch he peeled away from the box and back to the dugout. Wainwright stood on the mound and stared toward home plate, waiting for the batter to show up for their scheduled appointment. Sanchez didn’t have much use for the thumb guard after all.

He did not make contact.

When facing a young batter, Wainwright will sometimes downshift his curveball, flipping it once Tuesday at 63.7 mph. He buckled Sanchez’s knee and got him to swing over a 73-mph curve in the dirt for the game’s first out. Wainwright missed on eight of his next 10 pitches and said, like an archer, his “sights were off.” The connection between two Gold Glove-winning corner infielders got him out of the first inning without allowing a run and bought him a chance to reset.

“There’s a reason they’re the best defense in baseball,” manager Oliver Marmol said.

“Anything you have to do to catch the ball,” Goldschmidt added. Asked how he was ready for Arenado’s throw, Goldschmidt said: “When we first started playing together last year I marveled. No, I’m just used to it.”

An early sign for Molina that Wainwright had sharp enough stuff for a win was that curveball in the dirt to Sanchez. By the end of the inning, the right-hander added the command of his sinker to go with the curve. The groundout snared by Goldschmidt was the first of seven groundouts and second of 10 balls in play within the reach of an infielder for an out. The Marlins never again put two runners on base in the same inning as Wainwright had them hook, line, and sinker for his 5 2/3 innings.

All that intruded on his focus was when Pujols broke from first for home.

The Cardinals’ designated hitter reached base all three times he faced a lefty pitcher. Against Marlins starter Jesus Luzardo, who tied a team record for lefties with 12 strikeouts in his first start this season, Pujols doubled and singled. He’s six-for-nine against lefties so far this season, and that single put him at first right ahead of Edman’s triple as long as he stayed ahead of Edman trying for a triple.

“I kind of unlocked for a second just to laugh and be a part of that,” Wainwright said. “As soon as he hit that ball in the gap, everybody in the dugout was hoping ‘Pop’ (Warner) would send him. Yeah, we wanted him to score. Really, just to see it more than anything. That was fun.”

Pujols cruised home for his second run of the game, his 1,877th of his career, putting him five shy of tying Tris Speaker, 12 short of surpassing Lou Gehrig for 12th all-time.

Including a fielder’s choice in the fifth, Pujols got to first in all four of his plate appearances, greeted there in the eighth inning by a pinch-runner.

“He’s going to sleep like a baby,” Molina said.

Edman finished with two RBIs, and all around him on the infield were defensive plays that stymied any current the Marlins created. Shortstop Paul DeJong picked a grounder that left Miguel Rojas’ bat at 106.4 mph to get a forceout and, in Marmol’s description, keep that inning from becoming the one that “could easily spiral and you have a completely different outcome.” The one run Wainwright allowed before the bullpen’s 3 1/3 scoreless innings came on Bryan De La Cruz’s solo homer. The hitter before Wainwright retired when he lunged from the mound, controlled the grounder, and then raced Joey Wendle to first for the out.

His teammates bought Wainwright time to catch his breath. Arenado came over and flipped the rosin bag around. Wainwright looked in to see Molina picking the phantom clay clumps from the batter’s box, just for a few more seconds.

“I caught nine innings. That was good,” Molina said. “Albert scored from first. That was good. And Waino making that play. That was good. The old men making plays.”

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