Photo is credited to Getty Images North America.
It was dramatic, climatic, and beyond erratic. It shouldn’t have happened, but it couldn’t have happened much better.
It was September 6, the middle game of a three-game, early-September series at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, between the hometown Pirates and visiting Cardinals that was as exciting as a Tuesday evening ballgame betwixt two clubs fighting for second place in an all but over division race could be.
St. Louis leaped to an early, yet commanding 4-0 advantage with a Yadier Molina grand slam in the top of the first inning, a lead that St. Louis rookie starter Luke Weaver maintained well through his four innings of two-run ball.
Leading by three, 5-2, entering the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals called upon reliever Matt Bowman to help bridge the game to the later innings. Bowman, the Cardinals’ rookie Rule 5 draft pick, entered his outing with a 3.92 ERA in 57 1/3 innings of work — and with a fair amount of trouble against the Pirates. Bowman had allowed four runs across as many appearances against the Bucs entering Tuesday, and the right-handed hurler failed to snap that trend.
Bowman was smacked around for four hits, and mixed in with the hits were two errors, including a throwing error committed by Bowman and a fielding error by first baseman Brandon Moss. The knocks and blunders brought significant traffic to the base paths for the Pirates, who pushed around four runs in the frame. Pittsburgh shortstop Jordy Mercer delivered the knockout blow to Bowman, as Mercer’s two-run double plated the third and fourth tallies of the inning and prompted Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to make a pitching change.
Now trailing by one, 6-5, Cardinals relievers Zach Duke, Kevin Siegrist, and Mike Mayers matched up with Pirates relievers Antonio Bastardo and Felipe Rivero to keep the scoreboard quiet across the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings. With their one-run lead still in tact, Pittsburgh warmed up and inserted nasty left-handed closer Tony Watson into the ballgame to face the top of the Cardinals’ batting order in a do-or-die ninth inning.
Watson took the mound in the top of the ninth with noteworthy control over the Cardinals in recent years. Since that start of the 2014 season up until that September night, Watson had held the Cardinals to just five runs on two extra-base hits and a meager .165 batting mark across 91 at-bats.
Those facts make what the Cardinals did in the upcoming minutes even more mind boggling, more wonderful.
Watson quickly recorded the first two outs of the inning before Matt Carpenter stepped to plate, serving as a pinch-hitter. Watson took charge over Carpenter, working the count to 0-2 almost instantly. Within a strike of a win, the lefty drew back and fired a sinker — his third in a row — to Carpenter, who promptly exerted a strong, forceful hack on the high delivery that sent the ball flying, soaring beyond right-center field and out of PNC Park for his eighteenth long ball of year, stunning the crowd and Watson and, more importantly, tying the game at six runs apiece.
Yadier Molina followed Carpenter’s blast with a double, setting the stage for Randal Grichuk, who entered the ballgame 4-for-16 with two home runs and with one hit in four at-bats entering his ninth-inning plate appearance. On a first-pitch sinker that zoomed to the heart of the plate, Grichuk smashed the ball to deep left field, leaving no doubt that he had just hit his 22nd home run of 2016 and given the Cardinals an 8-6 lead.
With his sinker lacking the necessary bite, Watson threw two changeups to the next batter, Jhonny Peralta, who took the pitches for balls. Now down by two runs and still seeking that coveted 27th out, Watson went back to his sinker, and Peralta didn’t miss it. Peralta ripped the pitch out to center field to give the Cardinals a three-run lead.
That was four runs off a pitcher who the club had scored only five off since 2014. That was four extra-base hits — three home runs — for the Cardinals, who managed just two doubles in 91 at-bats off Watson over the last three seasons.
Seung Hwan Oh entered the game for St. Louis and, despite allowing a run, sealed the deal on an improbable comeback win for the Cardinals, a victory inspired by a ten-minute period where the team gelled to produce one of the most dramatic, climatic, and erratic innings of year.
No, it shouldn’t have happened.
But it couldn’t have happened much better.