The St. Louis Cardinals had been struggling. They had won four of their past 17 games, dropped to second place in the National League Central Division and were creeping ever closer to falling to third, but all of those problems washed away as the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates played the most intense game of the season.
There was good pitching, timely hitting, defensive miscues and enough strategy to make the most devoted baseball purists giddy as they first- and second-guessed the multitude of decisions managers Mike Matheny and Clint Hurdle had to make.
The Pirates jumped ahead with three runs in the first two innings, but then starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals bullpen held them scoreless for the next 12 innings as the Cardinals charged toward a comeback win against a rock-solid team.
The Cardinals scored two runs in the sixth inning to close within one run of Pittsburgh’s lead, and then Pirates left fielder Starling Marte dropped a fly ball with one out in the bottom of the ninth, and the Cardinals cashed in to tie the game two batters later on a base hit by Allen Craig.
Each team had multiple opportunities to win the game as they both put runners in scoring position in the 10th, 11th and 13th innings, but each time the team in the field came up with a critical play to save the game.
The game ended in the 14th inning when left fielder Adron Chambers singled to left to score Jon Jay. The Cardinals got a crucial extra-inning victory to close within two games of the Pirates for the division lead, and for the first time they showed the toughness and will to do whatever possible to try to win the game.
Tuesday’s victory was the Cardinals first in 41 tries when they had trailed after eight innings. For whatever reason, this has not been a good come-from-behind team. It jumped out to leads in the first few innings seemingly every night early in the season as they racked up the best record in Major League Baseball, but they had yet to show the unwavering fight to win a game in the late innings, which was a hallmark trait of the 2011 World Series championship team and the 2012 team that came within one win of the World Series.
But the 2013 edition of the Cardinals looked very similar to those previous two teams Tuesday at Busch Stadium. Wainwright made it through seven innings without allowing a run after the second inning, and five relievers, including four rookies, kept the Pirates scoreless in what turned out to be the second half of the game.
That is the type of win that should give a team a burst of confidence to realize they can come back from a late-inning deficit and beat a good team such as Pittsburgh. Even though the Cardinals had a great record in the first half of the season, they had not played many winning teams and had not been tested nearly as strong as they have so far in the second half.
The Pirates, Cincinnati Reds. Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers won 11 of 15 games from the Cardinals in a two-week stretch, and that shook the baseball world in St. Louis. Suddenly the game wasn’t coming nearly as easily as it had earlier in the season, and the team had to toughen up.
More than anything, toughness was the trait that shined through as the Cardinals won a thrilling game Tuesday over the Pirates.
Perhaps the team has found the edge it needed to make this a fun and intense six-week race for the division title and another hold-your-breath type of October.