Not to sound too dramatic, but there was a point during yesterday’s game when I truly wondered why I subject myself to Cardinals baseball. It was after Freddie Freeman knotted the game up at four with a solo shot in the 8th which brought the Braves all the way back from four runs down. The Cardinals were looking at their second straight Sunday of blowing a big lead to a lousy team who had started a pitcher on the wrong side of 40. Last week it was Bronson Arroyo, yesterday it was R.A. Dickey. And the Cardinals were doing it with their own brand of aggressive complacency.
Last Sunday in the bottom of the 5th, Matt Carpenter hit a bases loaded clearing double with no outs to put the Cardinals up 4-0. He then moved to third on Jedd Gyorko’s single. So the Cardinals had runners on the corners with no outs and a nice lead. It was time to put the Reds away. But Stephen Piscotty followed with a grounder to third, and rather than play it safe, Carpenter broke for home and was dead to rights. It wasn’t a chance Carpenter needed to take.
Yadier Molina grounded into a double play in the next at-bat to end whatever threat remained and the Reds’ comeback started the very next inning. (If I’m being too harsh on Carpenter’s base running, feel free to say so. I don’t recall a big to-do at the time, but that was my interpretation of the play.)
Yesterday a similar scene unfolded. The Cardinals were up 4-0 by way of jumping all over Dickey’s knuckleballs. Randal Grichuk led off the top of the 5th with a double, and two batters later was called out trying to steal third with Gyorko at the plate, who’s currently the Cardinals’ best hitter not named Carpenter. To make matters worse, Grichuk possibly looked safe on one replay and the Cardinals oddly didn’t challenge. Again, aggressive complacency.
A 4-0 lead is not safe in the 5th inning. Not at SunTrust Park, it seems, not with the Cardinals’ bullpen which hasn’t been great (4.42 ERA; 4.41 FIP in 95.1 innings pitched heading into Sunday), and not with a player like Freeman lurking on the other side.
There’s a reasonable argument that trying to steal third with one out and a knuckleballer on the mound is a defensible play. I get that. There’s certainly a reasonable argument that the Cardinals would try to steal third no matter who was on second, no matter who was on the mound, no matter the inning, no matter the score. I don’t know how many articles need to be written to convince the Cardinals to approach base stealing like the 2016 Orioles but it is apparently limitless. And to be fair, the Cardinals have a 68 percent success rate on stolen bases this season (17 for 25), which isn’t great but not horrific either, and Grichuk was a perfect three-for-three heading into Sunday and may have been safe on that particular attempt.
No matter, with the way the Cardinals were seeing Dickey, the best play there was to let Gyorko hit with Grichuk safely on second. When the Braves began chipping away at the lead the next inning, culminating in Freeman’s solo shot off Brett Cecil to complete the comeback in the 8th, the thought of losing another game in this fashion during one of the easier stretches of the schedule was enough to conjure up the silly thought expressed in the opening paragraph.
But then came extra innings, and the Cardinals escaping out of jam after inexplicable jam, to the point that in the 12th inning the Braves win expectancy reached 81.5 percent. And then finally after 14 innings, this happened:
WHAM. BAM. THANK YOU, PHAM! #STLCards pic.twitter.com/GMZcsTnkiU— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) May 7, 2017
That was Tommy Pham’s second home run of the day, his third of what has been his first and only series this season. Largely due to Pham - who was trying to claw his way back out of the minors just a couple of days ago - the Cardinals won a game they had no business winning long after they had no business losing it.
Ideally it’s enough to solidify his place on the 25-man roster. He’s not a perfect player, not many 29-year olds who haven’t hit 400 plate appearances are. But he’s a solid and viable option to fill in at any spot in the outfield, with a bat that’s proven a bit more at this level than Jose Martinez’s (another great story, to be sure). And the attempt to play Matt Adams in left field was never fair to Pham nor Adams.
The main point is, I watch, most of us watch, because of moments like Sunday and players like Tommy Pham, who deserved a day like that as much or more than any other player in baseball. The season will be bumpy, frustrating, and there will be injuries, but to that end Pham should fit in the Cardinals’ plans going forward.