ST. LOUIS — There were a few key pieces Cardinals they were able to rely on throughout the season. One is Ryan Helsley – one of the sharpest relievers in the game, to say nothing of the hardest-throwing, who finally unlocked his potential this year with career-low walks and career-high strikeouts. Another is the infield defense – an efficient, cohesive unit responsible for the fewest team errors in baseball. The roster certainly has other strengths. But these? They were the most reliable—less like mere forces, more like self-evident truths, seemingly inalienable and irrevocable.
Still, St. Louis’ ninth inning Friday was a reminder that any baseball truth is only as reliable as the last time it was said. The Cardinals were two outs away from what could have been a 2-0 victory over him Phillies. Then, in a dizzying collapse, St. Louis gave up six runs in less than half an hour, watching that lead disappear into a miserable deficit. Helsley lost his command, the infield lost its polish, and the Cardinals lost it all, 6–3.
There’s little margin for error in these best-of-three wildcard series. Which means that nightmare performance in Game 1 put the season on the brink for St. Louis.
“You just bring it to baseball,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said. “And you keep moving.”
Fair enough. But that brand of baseball was disjointed and sloppy in a way his team hadn’t been all year—uncharacteristic of this roster, and especially this franchise, to the point of horrendous.
Helsley entered the game with one out in the eighth inning. Tasked with protecting a two-run lead — the kind of job he had handled smoothly all year — the righty got to work. While he needed to sit out his final regular-season outing with a jammed finger on his hand, St. Louis had said Helsley would be OK for the playoffs, and initially looked the part. He easily recorded the last two outs of the eighth and got a quick hit to start the ninth. But then he allowed a single. Then a walk. Then a more horrific ride, this one over five pitches, two of them on clay. Suddenly he didn’t seem to feel the zone: This was a reliever with a 1.25 ERA, one who allowed just nine earned runs all time, with six of them coming from home. That kind of movement on the base paths was rare for him. This kind of unfolding was almost unfathomable.
That meant the bases were loaded for Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm. And the Cardinals decided to release Helsley to deal him. “You hope he gets it back,” Marmol said of his attitude after the reliever’s two walks. “He’s been extremely reliable all year. Obviously we know about the finger problem, it wasn’t a problem early on, it didn’t show any signs. Once you go back-to-back walks, you think he’s the last one to hit.” Where was it. Not as Marmol had hoped.
Helsley’s first pitch to Bohm was in the dirt. His second was fouled. But his third was his worst error to date: A 100-mph, up-and-down fastball that hit the batter to bring in a run. A 2-0 lead was now 2-1—with the bases loaded and still just one out in the ninth.
The bullfight was busy while a trainer came out to look at Helsley. (He was removed and sent for imaging on his finger after the game.) The Cardinals had two options to replace him: Jack Flaherty, the starter recently converted to a relief weapon, or Andre Pallante, the rookie ground specialist. But the men at the base made it an ideal situation for the latter. With that famous infield defense, after all, a double play shouldn’t have been a problem.
And so Pallande did more or less what he was asked. Facing Phillies speedster Jean Segura, he threw a low slider that could have been a test for second baseman Tommy Edman, who ranks among the best athletes on this team.
“I saw it on the ground,” Pallante said, “and it was exactly what I wanted.”
Was it the kind of game that Edman makes regularly — no Comfortably, sure, but something that might seem routine in the hands of a defender this skilled. But this? He passed.
“It just came through,” Pallante said.
Two runs scored. The Cardinals’ lead was gone in the most unexpected way possible. A collapse from their most consistent reliever was surprising. But this next defensive error seemed completely unthinkable.
Asked if Segura’s hit could have been saved if the infield had been positioned differently — further back, perhaps — Marmol insisted it was in the right spot. So did his players: So they said they would have prepared for this situation at any point this season.
“We were in the middle,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “I mean, you don’t want to be up there and give up the lead on a ball that maybe you could have reached. So we were in the middle, which is a spot we play all the time, a lot there. And he was just able to get it from Tommy.”
And yet it got worse. And worse. Three more runs would be scored in a season full of poor pitching and poor defense—including, most amazingly, one in a lost game by nine-time Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado.
“That’s just how the inning went,” Arenado said. “It just wasn’t working for us. It just passed. What are you going to do?”
An attempted rally in the bottom of the ninth wasn’t enough to save them.
A day that had started as a pitchers’ duel between the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler and the Cardinals’ José Quintana ended as something much more strange and confusing. Each of the appetizers looked delicious. In the seventh inning, after both had been removed, St. Louis got on the board with a home run by Juan Yepez. It was the first pitch the rookie had ever seen in the playoffs and he drove it right into the stands, building a 2-0 lead for the Cardinals. It looked like it would hold — until it didn’t.
“We played a good game, just until the end,” Arenado said. “I hope we play a complete game tomorrow.”
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