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Closing time? Cardinals lose lead in ninth-inning fiasco, now face elimination by Phillies

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Cradling a small, precious lead with an inning about to cave in all around them, the Cardinals got into a bad spot with their closer.

Now they’re in a worse one without him.

With two outs to get and a two-run lead to save in the first game of the playoffs Friday against Philadelphia, All-Star Ryan Helsley lost the feel for his pitches. The middle finger injured three days earlier stiffened on him during the ninth inning, leading to two walks and, with the bases loaded, a hit batter. Before the Cardinals moved to replace Helsley the game began to come apart, fast and messy. The Phillies scored six runs in the ninth to upend the Cardinals, 6-3, in Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series. They can just end the Cardinals’ season with a win Saturday night.

The Cardinals will be without Helsley to close if they have a chance to hold off elimination as the right-hander left the ballpark for a battery of exams on his finger late Friday.

“He’s been super-reliable all year,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “Obviously, we’re aware of the issue with the finger. It wasn’t an issue early on. Didn’t show any signs of it. Once you go back-to-back walks, you’re thinking this is the last hitter. And hit by pitch definitely ends it.”

The Phillies’ comeback was just getting started.

Helsley’s 101-mph bruise to Alec Bohm forced home the Phillies’ first run in the playoffs since 2011, and still the Cardinals had the lead, two outs away from control of the series. What followed was an uncharacteristic and sketchy inning that featured two Gold Glove winners trying to force plays and a debatable infield positioning that cost runs. For the first time in 94 playoff games when they’ve had at least a two-run lead in the ninth, the Cardinals lost. The unraveling of one inning was a stark contrast to the crisp, brisk, scoreless work by starter Jose Quintana that carried the Cardinals until Juan Yepez’s homer gave them a 2-0 lead going into the disastrous ninth inning.

“And we didn’t take care of business,” third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “We just needed two more outs and we couldn’t do it.”

Helsley jammed the middle finger on his right hand into the ground Tuesday night trying to regain his balance against Pittsburgh. The finger remained tender and its range of motion limited for two days, but when Helsley tested it Thursday he was encouraged. He was able to apply pressure to the ball, especially with fastballs. He breezed through his first two outs, finishing the eighth inning. He struck out two of the first three batters he faced and did not lack for velocity. His command went sideways.

J.T. Realmuto sparked the rally with a single to left-center. Two walks followed. With the bases loaded and the Cardinals bullpen scrambling, Helsley remained in the game. He made three pitches to Bohm. The third veered in Bohm on to force home the run.

That made the choice for the Cardinals.

Andre Pallante and Jack Flaherty were both warm, and Flaherty had the PitchCom speaker already inserted into his hatband. He had to remove it and hand it to Pallante, a rookie with a wicked sinker that gets grounders. Marmol played the numbers — putting a high groundball pitcher against a higher-groundball hitter, Jean Segura.

“You’ve got one out,” Marmol said. “The situation is basically you want to end the game there with a groundball double play. If there’s two outs that goes to Jack and go for the punch out. So, you’re just playing the outs and probability there.”

The catch with groundballs?

Sometimes they go where they aren’t caught.

With Pallante, speedy Segura at the plate, the tying at third, and bases still loaded, the Cardinals played the infield in. The idea was to have middle infielders close enough that a hard grounder would become a double play and a soft grounder, like the one expected, would at least get the out at the plate.

The Cardinals call it the 'X-play,' and Phillies manager Rob Thomson saw exactly what his opponent wanted to pull off: "They played the infield in to try to cut down the run or possibly double play from balls hit firm. But the ball luckily just got by the second base man, and we scored a couple runs there. Great at-bat. Just put the ball in play with two strikes and keep fighting."

Pallante got the soft grounder from Segura to the right side, but with Tommy Edman playing up toward the grass the ball squeaked to the outfield. It was not only slow enough for Segura to have negated any chance of a double play if the infield was back, but also slow enough that a Phillie scoring from second was a given.

Edman said his attempt to try and slide, spin, and throw home meant he missed the ball and Segura had a two-run single to take the lead.

“I was trying so hard to preserve the lead right there,” Edman said. “I tried to do too much with it. I was trying to make a play where I was sliding and spinning at the same time and then overran the ball a little bit, let the ball get to the outfield. I probably wouldn’t have had a play at home anyway. The best I could have done would have been an out at first.”

From there, the inning jostled the Cardinals’ golden defense. Pinch-runner Edmundo Sosa outran a throw home on another grounder for another run. Arenado missed on a groundball when he tried to rush it for an inning-ending double play. Between the first and second out of the inning, the Phillies scored five runs, and the second out was a sacrifice fly for the sixth.

Only out and Realmuto’s single wasn’t on the ground.

“That’s kind of how the inning went,” Arenado said. “It wasn’t going our way. Right when I saw (the grounder) I was thinking double play. Probably the wrong play. I should have gone back and get the safe out. Tried to do a little too much there. It was a bad read.”

The series of unfortunate events in the ninth — avoidable events, too — came like a dart to a hot air balloon. The Cardinals were soaring high, buoyant after Yepez connected for a pinch-hit home run on the first postseason pitch he had ever faced. It was the first pinch-hit homer to put the Cardinals ahead in their playoff history. The rookie touched home after his two-run rainbow and was immediately bear-hugged by Albert Pujols. Yepez relished his curtain call from a sellout crowd of 45,911. But the lead wasn’t much holding them aloft, and it proved flammable. The bullpen held that lead for four outs before the dart hit and the descent began.

In his playoff debut with the Cardinals, Quintana was brilliant, continuing a postseason shutout of the Phillies started 11 years ago by Chris Carpenter. With echoes of their last playoff meeting and all the zeroes, too, Quintana pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings. Two of his three strikeouts were of leadoff slugger Kyle Schwarber, one with two runners on base. Phillies right-hander Zack Wheeler pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Yepez’s homer came three batters after Wheeler exited the game. All of the Cardinals runs came from players who started the game on the bench against pitchers who began the game in the bullpen.

As they left the ballpark Friday night, the Cardinals did not know the results of Helsley’s X-rays and scans of the problematic finger. He threw 33 pitches in the push to close the game and would likely have been unavailable for Game 2. The list of what the Cardinals may need to find already on the second night of the playoffs isn’t long, but it is substantial.

A closer.

Some runs.

A win.

“The next day is a new day. This will be no different,” Marmol said. “We know what’s at stake. We either win or go home. We’ll embrace that.”

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