A riveting, scoreless duel set to be decided by a single pitch came unraveled, fast and messy, on the Cardinals in the ninth inning when so many pitches went so, so awry.
Escorted by two walks and a hit batter to their first playoff rally in 11 years, the Phillies scored six runs against a Cardinals team that had a difficult time regaining its balance. Two outs away from winning Game 1 of the National League Wild Card, the Cardinals suddenly, almost inexplicably are on the brink of elimination after losing 6-3 to the Phillies on Friday afternoon at Busch Stadium. Philadelphia can advance with a win Saturday night in the best-of-three series.
A lead provided by Juan Yepez’s pinch-hit homer in the seventh went poof when closer Ryan Helsley could not control his pitch and the ninth sped up on the Cardinals’ decisions.
Helsley, possibly pitching with a compromised and stiff right middle finger, inherited a two-run lead and could not complete the ninth inning before igniting the Phillies’ rally. With one out, Helsley allowed a single, two walks, and then hit a batter with a wild pitch to force home Philadelphia’s first run of the game. Fourteen of Helsley’s final 23 pitches were balls before he was lifted after an injury-check warmup pitch.
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With the bases still loaded, the Cardinals had two pitchers warmed in the bullpen and went to Andre Pallante instead of Jack Flaherty. Flaherty passed Pallante the PitchCom speaker from inside his hat.
The inning spiraled from there.
A groundball got through a curiously drawn-in infield for two runs – the tying run and the go-ahead run. A throw home on another grounder was not in time to beat pinch-runner Edmundo Sosa’s slide. The Phillies scored five runs off two Cardinals relievers between the first and second out of the inning, and that second out produced a sixth run on a sacrifice fly.
The Cardinals mounted a minor rally in the ninth to produce a run on Nolan Gorman’s RBI single, but former starter Zach Eflin struck out Yadier Molina as the tying run at the plate to ended the game.
The ninth inning’s quagmire was a sharp contrast to the streamlined pitching that dictated the first six innings of the game.
Starters Jose Quintana and Zack Wheeler, who remains a riddle for the Cardinals, matched zero for zero through their starts. It was a stingy and, at times, overpowering performance by the pitchers carrying the vague outline of the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. That night – Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS – Chris Carpenter refused to blink, outpitching Phillies ace Roy Halladay in a 1-0 victory, when the first run came in the first inning. There was no such lead for Quintana to hold or for Wheeler to avoid as Friday’s game reached the bullpens still looking for its first run.
Yepez’s homer puts Cards ahead
One batter after Wheeler threw his last pitch, the Cardinals stirred.
Against left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado, Dylan Carlson drew a walk. That two-out baserunner prompted the Cardinals to bring in Yepez as the right-handed pinch-hitter for Corey Dickerson. Yepez had been on the playoff roster a year ago for the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, but he never left the dugout in that loss. After a year’s for that first crack at a postseason at-bat, Yepez pounced on a cutter and skied it deep beyond left field. As he walked, in a good mimic of Albert Pujols, the ball stayed fair.
The pinch-hit homer to take the lead was a postseason first for the Cardinals. Yepez became the first player to hit a home run on the first postseason pitch of his career since Evan Longoria did for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
Pujols was the first player to greet Yepez after he touched home plate, and Yepez had an enthusiastic current call waiving his hands to the sellout crowd of 45,911.
Helsley’s finger issue apparently persists
The Cardinals’ bullpen held the Yepez-powered lead through two innings and then invited a mess in the ninth. Setup right-hander Giovanny Gallegos pitched a scoreless 1 1/3 innings, and closer Helsley took over in the eighth. It wasn’t long before the injured middle finger became a factor. Helsley brought the go-ahead run at the plate with one out in the ninth. He had thrown 27 pitches by the time he dealt with Nick Castellanos and the former Reds’ chance to flip the game.
JT Realmuto’s one-out single got the inning going for the Phillies, and Helsley did the rest. He walked Bryce Harper, walked Castellanos, and then hit Alec Bohm to force home a run. That run was the Phillies first in the playoffs in 11 years.
To buy time for the bullpen to get going and even score more time for the relievers to warm up, the Cardinals had a trainer check on Helsley. He threw one test pitch and then left the mound. The inflexibility of his contributing finger appeared to contribute to his lack of feel.
Quintana brilliant in Red October debut
As far as indicators go, the ease with which Quintana got his first six outs was second to the guts he had getting his eighth out.
In his first playoff start for the Cardinals and first playoff appearance since 2017, Quintana got six outs on his first 18 pitches. It took him six pitches to retire the middle of the Phillies’ order, in order, in the second inning. His first speedbump came in the third inning when CBC product Matt Vierling lashed a single to right field after a one-out walk. The bottom of the Phillies order brought leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber around for a second look at Quintana, and this time with two runners on base.
The Cardinals’ lefty did what he did for 10 of the first 14 batters.
Quintana challenged Schwarber with a sinker drifting away. He regained a lead in the count when Schwarber fouled off a 1-1 sinker. When Schwarber ignored a curveball out of the zone, Yadier Molina and Quintana went back to the breaking ball – and landed it in the zone. Schwarber swung past it for the escape-route strikeout. Quintana got a full-count groundout from Rhys Hoskins to strand the two runners and keep the game scoreless.
The Phillies would get only one other runner on base against Quintana and that leadoff double in the fifth was neutralized with a couple of groundouts and flyball.
Quintana is the first pitcher acquired via trade to start Game 1 of a playoff series for the Cardinals since Jeff Weaver did in 2006 against the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. Quintana bested the other mark Weaver set that season by becoming the first trade acquisition since the right-handed Weaver to debut in the postseason with the Cardinals with at least five scoreless innings. Weaver threw five, precisely. Quintana completed 5 1/3 scoreless innings before turning the game over to the bullpen.
Entering the game, the Cardinals identified a spot in the game where Quintana, if pitching well, could press through a third look at the Phillies’ lineup. It would be a brief one.
With Schwarber, a left-handed hitter who led the National League in homers, leading off the sixth inning, Quintana got the spot and struck out Schwarber again. The second strikeout came on a 2-2 fastball up in the zone that started with the same eye level of a curveball. Quintana’s 75th pitch finished off his third strikeout and he turned the scoreless game over to the reliever after allowing on two hits.
Wheeler continues to vex Cardinals
Regardless of what direction the postseason goes from here, the brevity of the wild-card series assures the Cardinals one thing: They won’t see Wheeler again this year.
The Phillies’ right-hander continued his mastery of the Cardinals with 6 1/3 scoreless innings. He did not allow the Cardinals a run in 20 1/3 innings against them this season, and in his past 28 1/3 innings against the Cardinals they’ve made one run.
The Cardinals got a leadoff single from Lars Nootbaar and then not another hit until the sixth inning. It wasn’t for lack of contact. The Cardinals’ lineup had a series of loud outs against Wheeler, but the exit velocity didn’t change the results – outs are outs. Pujols stung a pitch at 100-mph off his bat only to line out to center.
Wheeler got better as the game got later and the score remained as tight as ever.
The second of two hits against Wheeler was Tommy Edman’s single to lead off the sixth. Nootbaar followed with a walk to get the game around to the muscle with two on. Wheeler didn’t flinch. For the first time since returning from a forearm injury, Wheeler worked past his 77th pitch. He challenged Pujols and was rewarded with a double play that broke the rally. Wheeler retired NL MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt oa groundout to finish the sixth and quash the one real extended chance the Cardinals had against him.
Arenado’s launch falls just shy
The briefest flash of a potential run against Wheeler came in the fourth inning when almost everyone with a St. Louis tie thought the ball might leave the ballpark. Everyone but Vierling.
Nolan Arenado, playing in only his second home playoff game ever, tagged a first-pitch, 98-mph fastball from Wheeler to deep center. The ball left Arenado’s bat at 104 mph. Arenado left the box as if that ball might leave the yard. Vierling tracked it down at the wall for an out, and Arenado flung his hands to his head as he tapped first. He flexed his back and walked off, denied what could have been a two-run homer and his second postseason homer.