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Grand relief: Patience pays off as Cardinals, Brendan Donovan slam Padres to avoid sweep

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In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Jose Quintana, who has a 2.44 ERA in nine starts for St. Louis. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to George Costanza! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

SAN DIEGO — By the time he set his mind to taking the 3-0 pitch, Brendan Donovan had already seen two cutters and a curveball from San Diego’s Nick Martinez. He knew the right-hander had a pet change-up, too, but with the bases loaded, he could be patient.

The Cardinals had already scored on Lars Nootbaar’s solo homer two innings earlier to snap a five-day cold spell and, players acknowledged later, allow the dugout to exhale any of the anxiety roiling from three consecutive shutouts. Not that Donovan felt any. The veterans on the team rave about the rookie’s precocious calmness. So there he was, down by two runs but well ahead in the count.


“No panic,” as Donovan says often.

He took the 3-0 pitch as planned — a cutter over the plate.

When he got the cutter again, he pounced.

Donovan’s first big-league grand slam catapulted the Cardinals out of their offensive malaise and into a 5-4 victory Thursday evening at Petco Park. The rookie’s home run off Martinez in the seventh inning flipped the game and made a winner of starter Jack Flaherty. Giovanny Gallegos pitched a scoreless ninth to secure his 14th save. Donovan provided the Cardinals’ first hit that produced two or more RBIs in 49 innings, or roughly 120 hours. The win knocked the Cardinals’ magic number to clinch the National League Central crown to five.

“This game is so unpredictable (that) it can snowball at any time,” Donovan said. “If you’re in there and you’re tight and that scoreless streak just continues. We know we’ve got a great team and a great offense that’s going to turn at any moment. It’s just a matter of who was going to do it.”

The win avoided a sweep at Petco and claimed the season series from the Padres, 4-2, but more immediately, it meant manager Oliver Marmol could stop talking about the offense that would arrive and instead discuss the offense that did. The Cardinals arrived at the ballpark Thursday morning having been shutout an NL-high 16th time on Wednesday, and Marmol greeted the local writers with a question: “Who wants to talk about offense?” They would go 31 innings without a run, 47 consecutive innings without an RBI or producing an earned run. No Cardinals team had ever been shut out four consecutive games, and yet these first-place Cardinals were five innings shy of that.

Marmol decided not to rewrite his lineup in response to the struggles, siding instead with the matchups that have been guiding his hand. There was one wrinkle. He kept Tommy Edman at leadoff and, after missing a start against a lefty, placed left-handed-hitting Donovan at No. 2.

“I think you can (upend the lineup), but then what happens if it doesn’t work?” Marmol said. “Then you’re just searching. I hate searching. Guys are good. They’ve been good for a while. They’re going to hit where they hit unless it really makes sense to switch it.”

Throughout the scoreless stretch and especially as the Cardinals panned for their first nugget of offense in California, Marmol reiterated daily the “confidence” he maintained in the offense, the trust he had in the process. He recognized that repeating such phrases after three consecutive shutouts risked the words losing value, becoming verbal pyrite. So he pointed to the proof. There had been no change in the tone around the clubhouse, no shift to suggest “panic” in the routines of the hitters.

Paul Goldschmidt was working on coordinating his swing during early batting practice, just as he’d been for weeks. Donovan had been encouraged by the routine he established as he felt his swing start to drift recently.

“What gives me confidence is you walk in here after getting shoved and this group is as confident as a month ago when we were lighting the world on fire offensively,” Marmol said. “Our main guys continue to say that we’re going to accomplish what we set out to accomplish and our offense is going to be just fine.

“They’re going about it as if they know how it ends.”

Hours before first pitch, Nolan Arenado wanted to take batting practice on the field, and in order to give him a breather between rounds, Nootbaar tagged along. They hit as a duo. Arenado’s round got an ovation from the crowd, but it was Nootbaar’s that had the finish. On his final two swings, he put souvenirs in the seats, right to the same person.

The Padres took a 1-0 lead on Flaherty’s second pitch when leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar hit his third leadoff homer of the season. San Diego widened that lead to 2-0 in the second with help from Nootbaar’s throw home hitting the mound and bounding beyond the reach of catcher Andrew Knizner. Two of the three runs Flaherty allowed in his six innings involved an error. The Cardinals left runners scattered all over the bases against Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove before the fifth inning arrived.

On the second pitch of the inning, Nootbaar hit his 13th home run, the Cardinals’ first since the third inning of Saturday’s afternoon game.

The ice broke.

“You obviously feel it when you’re in the middle of it,” Marmol said. “You try to just trust the process and we’ll come out of it. There are times where some guys will try to do too much in a situation to make up for it.”

Donovan has not been one of those guys.

Even as his swing slipped in recent games, his willingness to wait for a walk didn’t. In the seventh, pinch hitter Dylan Carlson led off with a single. Nootbaar drew a walk to put the tying run on bases. That brought Martinez in to replace lefty Adrian Morejon. Had Marmol not swapped Edman and Donovan, the lefty would have stayed in for Donovan. The Padres wanted to put Edman on the left side of the plate, and he worked a full-count walk to load the bases. The Cardinals had the matchup they wanted. The Padres had nowhere to put him.

“I want you to throw a strike,” Donovan said of thinking on the 3-0 pitch. “The bases are loaded. You have to throw a strike. I got up on the dish and then, 3-1, now I’m ready to swing.”

The cutter came back to his barrel, and the ball landed beyond the wall.

Donovan had one more thought as he saw the ball disappear.

“Don’t miss a base,” he said.

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