Cardinals spoil Yepez homer with appalling ninth-inning meltdown, drop Game 1 to Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies' Edmundo Sosa (33) scores past St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina...
Philadelphia Phillies' Edmundo Sosa (33) scores past St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina during the ninth inning in Game 1 of a National League wild card baseball playoff series, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 4:48 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - The first go-ahead pinch-hit home run in Cardinals postseason history went for naught on Friday as St. Louis collapsed in the end, allowing six runs in the ninth innings as the Cardinals fell to the Phillies 6-3 in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series.

Rookie slugger Juan Yepez had his big moment in the seventh inning, breaking a scoreless tie with a pinch-hit blast to left field on the first pitch he saw from Philadelphia reliever Jose Alvarado. But neither the lead nor the exuberance inside Busch Stadium at that moment would last for St. Louis.

After a strong finish to the eighth inning for Ryan Helsley, the Cardinals All-Star closer began to falter in the ninth, losing his typically pinpoint command as he walked two batters and hit another with a pitch to plate Philadelphia’s first run. Helsley left the game at that point with an injury designation, giving rookie reliever Andre Pallante all the time he needed to warm up behind him.

It was the Cardinals’ defense, though, that seemed to go numb during the pitching change. With the bases loaded and one out in a 2-1 game, the middle-infielders were drawn in more closely than typical double-play depth. Jean Segura took advantage and punched a one-out, two-run single past a sprawling Tommy Edman to give the Phillies a 3-2 lead. Consternation over the team’s defensive positioning dominated much of the conversation surrounding the blown lead for the Cardinals.

“Segura can run and he can easily just tap something in play and get going,” Marmol said. “So you want to make sure if it’s not hit hard, you can get an out at the plate and give yourself a chance. If it’s hit hard, then you’re turning the double play. So he’s positioned correctly there.”

Marmol went into further detail about the play that swung the game, articulating the tightrope the Cardinals were looking to walk with their defensive positioning in that situation.

“We’re in what we call an ‘X-play’ there where you’re tight enough that if it’s hit soft, you’re going to the plate,” Marmol explained. “If it’s hit hard, you can turn it. You’re going to have to get the right groundball to get Segura. He can run. So you have to defend against both. Even if he’s two steps back and has to go glove side, you’re not turning that double play on Segura.”

Of the 582 MLB players who logged at least 10 competitive base running opportunities this season, Segura ranks 242nd in Sprint Speed, but 115th in his average time from home plate to first base. Segura was one of 122 base runners to log at least two ‘Bolts’ in 2022. Statcast describes a ‘Bolt’ as any run above 30ft/sec.

Though Tommy Edman is the reigning Gold Glove Award winner at second base, one could make the case that positioning him where the Cardinals did on that fateful play was an example of the team trying to bite off more than it could reasonably be expected to chew defensively.

“I think in my situation, I was just trying so hard to preserve the lead right there,” Edman said. “I probably wouldn’t even have had a play at home, anyways. I think the best I could have done on that play is just get an out at first. Recognizing that and just taking what the ball gave me rather than trying to make something out of nothing.”

Edman’s explanation for the play coincided with the way his manager had described it at the postgame podium. Edman bore the brunt of the ill-fated misplay, acknowledging that he should have found a way to keep the ball on the infield dirt.

“It’s a play where if the ball is hit hard at you and you think you can turn two, you’re going to turn two, obviously, and end the game,” Edman said. “If the ball is not hit into a spot where you’re able to turn two, you’ve got to try to go home. That’s what happened on that play. I saw that the ball wasn’t really hit hard enough and it was hit to my left, so I wasn’t going to be able to turn two. I tried to make a play where I was going to field it, spin, and try to throw it home real quick⁠—and I kinda overran it. It ended up getting to the outfield, which shouldn’t have happened right there.”

Though Edman owned his role in the play, questions over the team’s aggressive defensive philosophy persist. Even a failed 4-6-3 with the middle-infielders at a traditional double-play depth would have tied the game, but it would have earned the Cardinals the second out in the inning with a chance to get out of the jam without trailing. Instead, the Cardinals went for the jugular with their defensive positioning⁠—and got caught in-between in the process, turning a lead into a deficit on one feeble right-side grounder.

The result wasn’t the one the Cardinals wanted, but it came in the midst of an aggressive process that the team feels has served it well all year.

“I think that’s a play that we can do because we have so many good defenders out there,” Edman said. “I don’t know. I think it’s just generally in that situation⁠—bottom of the ninth and you’re up one⁠—obviously, you don’t want to concede a run in any way. The other thing is that, with the runner, with Segura up, he gets down the line really well. So if you’re back, it’s going to be tough to turn two, anyway. With Pallante, he gets a lot of weak groundballs. So you think, that’s going to be an opportunity to get an out at home rather than have a good chance to turn two. That all played a factor into that play right there.”

The ninth-inning jam developed as Helsley began to lose a feel for his pitches. Marmol confirmed the issue was related to when Helsley left his last appearance in Pittsburgh Tuesday after jamming his middle finger trying to field a grounder.

“Once we went out there, he said he started to lose a little bit of feel for his pitches,” Marmol said. “He felt good when he come off the first time. Went back out. No issues early on. But then said he started to lose feel.”

Helsley had thrown more than one inning in a relief appearance just once since September 1, and had not seen game action since his early departure on Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Helsley’s confirmation that he felt healthy and strong leading up to the point at which Friday’s outing went off the rails led to the Cardinals attempting to ride him through the situation.

“You check every box,” Marmol said. “We’ve been honest with each other all year. You say you’re good to go, then you’re good to go.”

As it turned out, Helsley wasn’t good to go. He had walked multiple batters in the ninth to load the bases before the Cardinals bullpen began bustling in a hurry. By that point, it was too late to remove Helsley from the game for the Alex Bohm plate appearance that ended in an HBP and Philadelphia’s first run of the game.

Marmol’s went to Pallante at that point, despite that Jack Flaherty warming up alongside him. Marmol explained that the decision to go Pallante over Flaherty⁠—who was visibly disappointed in the bullpen not to hear his number called for the big moment⁠—was situational, as well.

“That was a tough one,” Marmol said. “Segura’s a high-groundball guy, 60 percent groundball guy against righties all year. Pallante’s a high, high-groundball guy. That match-up has it above 70 percent. You’ve got one out. The situation is basically you want to end the game there with a groundball double play. if there are two outs, I go to Jack and go for the punchout. You’re just playing the outs and the probability there.”

After the Edman misplay, the Cardinals allowed another run on a grounder to first as Paul Goldschmidt went home with the baseball⁠—another Gold Glover eager to make an aggressive play to try and staunch the bleeding. But Yadier Molina couldn’t apply a timely tag, making it 4-2 Phillies, still with only one out in the inning.

It was the second groundball produced by Pallante in the inning⁠—exactly what the fireman reliever was looking for, just not the result he or the Cardinals craved.

To that point, the runs against the Cardinals’ pitching were inexplicable, tragic outcomes of an aggressive process. But when Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado completely whiffed a routine chopper to allow two more runs to score, it cemented a 6-2 score and a wretched half-inning for the Cardinals.

“Right when it was hit, I was thinking double play, so I wanted to go get it,” Arenado said. “But it was just probably the wrong play. I should have just gone back, just get the safe out. Probably tried to do a little bit too much right there, I guess... It was a bad read.”

A ninth-inning rally for the Cardinals fell short as Yadier Molina struck out to end the game. St. Louis squandered a strong outing by Jose Quintana, who pitched 5.1 scoreless innings, holding the Phillies to just two hits and one walk in the process.

This particular postseason was of an ilk that had never happened previously in franchise history: before Friday, the Cardinals were 93-0 in the playoffs all-time when leading by two or more runs heading into the ninth. Now, it’s 93-1.

The Cardinals now have to win two in a row to advance to the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. Miles Mikolas is set to start on the mound for game 2, which starts at 7:37 p.m. on ESPN2.