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Closer to a crown: Cards cut magic number to 3 with barrage of homers, stingy relief

Closer to a crown: Cards cut magic number to 3 with barrage of homers, stingy relief

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PHOENIX — Between Paul Goldschmidt’s home run to mark his homecoming and the late runs to assure his happy returns, the Cardinals had to navigate their way through a game that identified where they’ll need to survive to thrive in October.

A win draped with homers was really a dress rehearsal for the bullpen.

The Cardinals hit four home runs at Chase Field, including Goldschmidt’s 100th at the ballpark, to take and extend a lead, but never far enough to keep the Diamondbacks completely out of reach. That task went to the relievers. A trio of righthanders, burnishing their roles for the postseason, pitched three scoreless innings to carry a lead into the ninth, where Carlos Martinez secured a 9-7 victory and his 24th save late Monday night against the Diamondbacks.

Martinez bent, but didn’t blow the save in a turbulent ninth to relieve Adam Wainwright. That snagged him his fifth win of September and put the Cardinals one win closer to a division title for October.

“We need them all,” Goldschmidt said. “We’re right there in the division race.”

The Cardinals (90-67) lowered their magic number to three ahead of the second-place Brewers. With Milwaukee set to start a series in Cincinnati on Tuesday, the Cardinals lead the National League Central by 3½ games with five to play.

The Cardinals have won 90 games for the first time since 2015.

Flush from their four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field that was one of the most important late-season road series in Cardinals history, the veterans on the team recognized such a high might invite a desert low. Before the start of the final road series of the regular season, the Cardinals spoke about avoiding a letdown, about letting the helium of the wins at Wrigley leak out and leave them with disappointment against the Diamondbacks. That word spread through the clubhouse.

“The message from all our veterans was what we did in Chicago was great,” said Wainwright (14-9). “That’s probably my favorite four-day stretch of any regular season that I can remember. That was amazing. But what we started there in Chicago was great, but that’s just the start.”

No player in the National League has played more games this season than Goldschmidt and yet it wasn’t until his 156th that he returned to the ballpark he called home for all of his career until this summer. More than six hours before first pitch, Goldschmidt and his family visited the field and played ball in right field. He was joined by friends and their kids for an impromptu reunion and family day. The game began with a video tribute to Goldschmidt, a six-time All-Star as a Diamondback and routinely an MVP candidate. Before the game was two innings old Goldschmidt had doffed his cap and his batting helmet to the crowd as thanks for rolling ovations.

The Cardinals have known him long enough to sense his unease.

“That’s not his cup of tea, per se,” manager Mike Shildt said.

Goldschmidt’s two-run homer in the second inning off starter Alex Young pushed the Cardinals’ lead to 4-1. He returned to Chase Field as its all-time leader with 99 home runs and then added his first as a visitor — his 100th-ever at the ballpark. He added a single in the ninth for a two-hit game. By then, Harrison Bader’s homer in the eighth had given the Cardinals insurance. The bullpen had given them stability.

And another peek at its postseason casting.

Rookie Ryan Helsley, increasingly featured as a middle-inning flamethrower, struck out a batter and got a key double play to freeze the score 6-5 after six innings. All four wins at Wrigley this past weekend were by one run, and three of the games were won in the Cardinals’ final at-bat. That put the onus on the bullpen to not only hold the Cubs, but close the Cubs.

When the bullpen took over Monday, the score was another one-run game to hold. The Cardinals continue to measure Helsley for that midgame role in October because of the power the righthander brings to the fourth or fifth innings. In the seventh, righthanded setup man Giovanny Gallegos, a revelation in relief this season, retired all three batters he faced. John Brebbia, the bearded constant for the group, struck out two and pitched a perfect eighth before allowing a homer in the ninth and bringing Martinez into the game.

All three of those relievers, from seasoned to newcomer to rookie, could see similar assignments in similar spots in different order in the playoffs.

“You’re seeing guys who are comfortable in these big spots,” Wainwright said. “Some young guys stepped up in Chicago and had big-time innings for us, and (Monday) guys coming in there and (were) comfortable in big spots. That’s the key. Every postseason team that I’ve been on, it seems like those roles and some kind of sleeper or surprise guys end up sneaking onto the postseason roster. If it was Jason Motte or Mitchell Boggs or a young Adam Wainwright – sometimes you get those guys who come up and just provide that extra spark to the bullpen.”

Catcher Yadier Molina, the shepherd for this flock of relievers, added a sacrifice fly to his home run for three RBIs in the game. The Cardinals loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth and squeaked across enough runs to stop Martinez’s warmups, briefly. A solo homer and a walk to lead off the ninth against Brebbia brought the closer in for his fifth appearance in six games.

Back home, Goldschmidt reached home for three runs.

His every plate appearance brought an applause, though he declined to accept the premise that his return to Chase Field was anything like Albert Pujols’ ovation-saturated visit to Busch Stadium earlier this season.

“One to 10 percent of what happened to him,” Goldschmidt said.

The stretch of success that thrust Jack Flaherty into the mix for Cy Young Award votes and hoisted the Cardinals back into contention began in August as the young starter won his first four decisions and had a 0.28 ERA. He allowed one earned run in his first 32 innings of that month and walked only eight. He was 4-0. That earned him the National League’s pitcher of the month award for August.

While Flaherty, Tuesday’s starter for the Cardinals, kept riding his dog-days dominance into September, Wainwright started his own that shared some of the results of Flaherty’s. In his first four starts of September, Wainwright was unbeaten, going 4-0, and he allowed one run in his first 27 innings along with four walks. The veteran also maxed out his contract with Monday’s start by earning a $2-million bonus for making his 30th start of the season. By reaching all of his incentives, and doing so in style, Wainwright added $8 million in bonuses to his $2-million base salary.

“The contract was one of those that worked out for both sides perfectly,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “Whenever you go into something with shared risk, it’s nice to see both sides rewarded.”

Wainwright reached the desert with a 0.33 ERA in September.

It didn’t take long to get scorched.

The Diamondbacks bit into the Cardinals lead with a run in the second and Christian Walker’s homer in the fourth, and then things started to blister and peel on Wainwright in the fifth. A one-out walk to a pinch-hitter was the pivot for Wainwright’s start and the prelude to four consecutive singles. Josh Rojas and Eduardo Escobar had RBI singles, and lefthanded hitter Jake Lamb lined a sacrifice fly to right field. The Cardinals stuck with Wainwright throughout the bases being loaded and then reloaded in the inning, and he struck out veteran Adam Jones to keep the Diamondbacks from more than three runs. The tying run was at second base when Wainwright threw his final pitch of the game.

He allowed five runs on eight hits through five innings, but thanks to the Cardinals sticking with him for the final out of the fifth he was in line to improve to 5-0 this month.

Home runs did most of the heavy lifting to build Wainwright that lead.

Tommy Edman hit his 11th home run of the season in the first inning for the Cardinals’ first run. Goldschmidt’s two-run shot to right field came in the third inning. And in the fifth inning, Molina watched from the on-deck circle as Marcell Ozuna drove a ball to deep center field. Molina raised his arms as Ozuna’s ball carried to the wall — but not over it. With Ozuna at second and a 2-0 count, Molina extended his arms again and catapulted a homer into the left-field seats. That pushed the Cardinals out to a 6-2 lead that would erode in the fifth inning.

The lead was down to a run in the sixth inning. The Cardinals won their sixth consecutive game. Eight of their past 10 games have been decided by three or fewer runs.

That reeks of what awaits them in the playoffs.

“I don’t think you can always win close games,” Goldschmidt said. “We know that. But the last few weeks the schedule has been tough. … I think we knew there would be a lot of tight games. Everyone is using their bullpen. Every pitch matters. It’s like playoff baseball. We knew that coming in, and it hasn’t disappointed.

“If we play well that would be a great story line,” he concluded. “If we don’t there will be another story line.”

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