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Hochman: With bop and bravado, Cardinals put a stop to the chop

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St. Louis Cardinals vs Atlanta Braves, Game 1 NLDS in Atlanta

Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt rounds the bases after homering in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. (David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

ATLANTA – Bravado.

The Atlanta Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals because the Cards showed up here and bravado'd the Braves, beating them by their own game in their own park. The Cardinals control this series now, putting their stamp on it by stomping on Atlanta’s pitching.

And now, if the Braves are going to win the National League Division Series, they have to win at least one game against Jack Flaherty. Only one game has been played in this series, yet it feels like St. Louis has two wins, because it’s hard to think Flaherty will lose both starts (Game 2 and possibly Game 5). Oh, and there’s also this bravado new world of the Cardinals winning games with their bats.

Pitching and defense, pitching and defense, yes, of course, that’s what got the Cardinals through September. But here in October, the Cards bopped their way to the 7-6 Game 1 win in the National League Division Series. They won this game the way it was dreamed up back when snow covered the field at Busch Stadium.

After acquiring slugger Paul Goldschmidt, the thought was that Goldschmidt (sixth in 2018 MVP voting) and Matt Carpenter (ninth) and Marcell Ozuna (15th in 2017) would mash. Then came the actual 2019 season. Carpenter stunk for most of the year. Ozuna stunk in September. And Goldschmidt was good, but not “Goldschmidt good.”

Well, on a sweltering night, those three swatted for a combined homer, three doubles and a Carp single that tied the game at 3-3 — and would have been a double if Kolten Wong, back from a hamstring injury, wasn’t sent home to try to score (and was thrown out at the plate).

Goldschmidt, Ozuna and Carpenter — four combined RBIs, one huge win.

“Let’s don’t kid ourselves, we want to score,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, whose team finished 23rd in the majors with a .415 slugging percentage. “We want some good at-bats. We can hang our hat on that and keep us in games, but we don’t feel obligated to being two-dimensional.

“We can do all four quadrants — base running, we can definitely hit, swinging bats and guys had great at-bats. Really pleased with where our offense is.”

Every day, 365, Cardinals fans and media mention the playoffs in some capacity. Can the Cardinals make it? Why didn’t they make it? Will this or that help them get closer to the playoffs? Everything points to the playoffs. Thursday, for the first time since 2015, was the playoffs. It was a long journey, and the Cardinals arrived to the party like they knew they belonged there. Unafraid. Ready to pounce on pitching. They tallied 14 hits — remember the regular season, when there were games they were lucky to get like four or five? — and eight of those hits came in the eighth and ninth innings. High-leverage situations. Series in the balance. Those types of at-bats separate the studs from the duds. The Cards, as a team, are 1-for-1.

“It’s digging down deep, battling through at-bats, spoiling pitches off and waiting for your pitch,” said starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, who himself contributed with a double of his own. “I think our lineup does that pretty well. We have a lot of guys that take pitches pretty well.”

But the player who amazed and surprised more than any other on this stage was Marcell Ozuna, who entered the series as the cleanup hitter by category only. He was reminiscent in many September at-bats of Brandon Moss, the Cards’ 2016 slugger who manager Mike Matheny kept in the lineup because of his ability to change a game with a homer (Moss, who coincidentally is a Georgia guy and was in the stands Thursday, seldom did). Ozuna had a .340 slugging percentage in September.

But there he was on Thursday in Atlanta, drawing a walk and drilling two doubles. The second was the play of the year. With two strikes this season, his batting average was .188. With two strikes in the ninth inning in Game 1, Ozuna smashed a double down the third-base line. Two runs scored. The Cards took a 5-3 lead.

The tomahawk chop stopped.

“I loved Marcell’s at-bats — just calm, letting the game come to him,” Shildt said. “You can tell he didn’t get a pitch he liked first pitch, chased on the breaking ball, and then you could see him kind of reset, not try to do too much, just put a swing on it. And he got awarded with a nice double down the line with two runs — big swing, good at-bat, great approach.”

Perhaps, really, all he needed was his equivalent of a superhero’s cape — the neon green sleeve worn on his arm. He wore it in 2018, but seldom in 2019. Then in the Cardinals’ final regular-season game, he wore it and got two hits. And he got two more in Game 1.

“For me it’s like a catalyst,” Ozuna said, “like something that if I go every day in the same way, and that way makes me get success. And makes me get a good result with the game — I'm going to go this way. And the sleeve — in 2017 was the first time that I wore it when I saw Yoenis Cespedes (of the Mets) in spring training. And I said I like that sleeve. And he said, ‘OK, go get it.’”

As for his offense in his first-ever postseason game, he said, “For me it’s amazing. It’s my passion. And especially when my family and my country, the Dominican Republic, has been watching me, and I just tried to do my best.

“I got that double and looked at the dugout and said, 'Let’s go!' I don’t want to say the other word (in public).”

Well, here’s a word to describe it all.

Bravado.

Cardinals vs. Braves photos

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The Cardinals' final 15 batters produced six runs to tie the game, take the lead and withstand what the Braves threw at them in the bottom of the ninth for a 7-6 win in Game 1 of the NLDS. A couple of slick plays by Paul Goldschmidt and and just enough steely pitches from Carlos Martinez cinched the win.

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