SEATTLE — In the last inning of the one game the Cardinals didn’t win during their visit to the Pacific Northwest came a moment that informed the at-bats that won the series.
Rookie Tommy Edman, as green in the majors as the gem that gives this Emerald City its nickname or the money that rains on its tech wizards, faced Seattle closer Roenis Elias with the tying run at second base Tuesday. Twice Edman got Elias into a count where the hitter had an edge, and each time the big-league closer went to the changeup. Edman eventually struck out on a full-count changeup but learned enough from that exchange to deliver the winning homer Wednesday and, for an encore, the winning single Thursday in a 5-4 victory at T-Mobile Park.
“I haven’t been in the league that long and he’s still throwing 3-2 changeups, 2-1 changeups, so just being in that situation like that I’m seeing how confident they are here throwing any pitch in any count,” Edman said. “Realizing pitchers aren’t going to give in — that was something I took away from it. I kind of became aware.”
And then he became a threat.
A day after seeing Elias’ changeup, Edman waited through four of them before Elias tested him with a fastball. Edman put it beyond the left-field wall for a three-run homer, the difference in a 5-2 victory. On Thursday, during a nine-pitch at-bat against Mariners reliever Matt Festa in the seventh inning, Edman turned on a fastball and put it just foul of being a grand slam. Having seen how comfortable Elias was with his any-count, any-time off-speed pitch, Edman calculated that he had just taken Festa’s fastball away from him. He was right. The next three pitches were all sliders, and he drove one hard, on the ground for a two-run single that flipped the Mariners’ lead, the game, and the series.
Dexter Fowler scored from third on Edman’s single to tie the game, and Harrison Bader wheeled around third to slide home ahead of the throw for the winning run. Edman drove home five of the Cardinals’ final eight runs in Seattle.
“That never gets old, right?” manager Mike Shildt.
The Cardinals reach the final weekend of the season’s first half on a two-game winning streak and fresh from winning only their second series in two weeks. The mediocrity that has defined them, at 43-42, has spread like a virus through the NL Central, and all five teams are clustered within 3 ½ games of each other. July, whether it’s in the standings or in the transactions, could yet define the division race, just as the Cardinals hope that the series in Seattle showed them the route back into it.
Edman got the key hits vs. the last-place Mariners, but the bullpen earned the wins. For starter Michael Wacha, the Cardinals decided early that “it just wasn’t Michael’s day,” and went to reliever Daniel Ponce de Leon in the fourth inning as the M’s tried to widen their 4-3 lead. Ponce de Leon pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings to net his first major-league win and maintain a trend set the night before by relievers like John Brebbia. In the final two games of the series at T-Mobile Park, the Cardinals’ relievers pitched 9 2/3 scoreless innings, walked one, and struck out 14. The Cardinals outscored the Mariners 7-0 in the seventh inning or later.
Shildt watched from his office after being ejected in the fourth inning for confronting home-plate umpire Rob Drake. Shildt took issue with a dismissive hand gesture Drake gave Yairo Munoz after the infielder tried to call time and was not granted it. Bench coach Oliver Marmol ran the game and received a beer shower alongside Ponce de Leon as celebrations for their first big-league wins.
For Edman, it was just another game-winning RBI in the majors.
In his 18th game.
The Cardinals’ sixth-round pick in 2016, Edman arrived as an accomplished switch-hitter from Stanford. As a junior, he led Stanford in runs, hits, triples, and was an All-Pac-12 shortstop who started the final 140 consecutive games of his career. Somewhere in there, though, he capitulated to a stereotype and became the kind of hitter expected from a 5-foot-10, 180-pound middle infielder. He started slapping for singles, not driving for damage.
His father, a high school coach near San Diego, noticed the shift in his son’s swing, and once Tommy went pro they had a chance to plug the power back in. Additional work with assistant hitting coach Mark Budaska sharpened Edman’s eye for pitches he could drive instead of chasing the elevated fastballs that other hitters hunt.
“Obviously I’m not the biggest guy so I think everybody expects me to go up there and just slap the ball and try to put it in play,” Edman said. “I feel like that’s not the kind of hitter I am. I feel like I can drive the ball to the gaps and maybe surprise a few people. I’ve gotten a little more confidence and I’m ready to let loose my swing. It’s not like I’m trying to go up there and hit home runs. I’m trying to go up there and hit hard line drives.”
That has been Shildt’s message all week.
Starting with a few team meetings on this road trip, Shildt has encouraged his team to break from their early-summer shrink and “seek damage.” He said he doesn’t want the hitters to “sell out” for homers, but to also stop waiting for the perfect pitch because the hitters are missing pitches they can punish. On other words: Do as Tommy does.
“I think guys were a little timid,” Fowler said. “Any time you’re scuffling, guys try to make something happen. You try to do the little things. We’ve got to go back to being us.”
Fowler laced the game-tying single that set up Edman’s winner on Wednesday, and Fowler hit a two-run homer Thursday in the fourth that tied the game. When Fowler’s ninth homer of the season landed, the Cardinals had scored 11 of 13 runs via homers. The seven homers that produced those runs had tied the game or taken a lead five times. Edman’s homer came as a pinch-hitter.
His two-run single Thursday came as a starter.
More at-bats are headed his way.
In the handshake line following Thursday win, Jose Martinez eased up behind Edman and fanned out his hands behind Edman’s head as if to give the rookie ... antlers, like the local moose?
“No, no – horns. Horns like the GOAT,” Martinez corrected, referencing the popular acronym du jour for Greatest Of All Time. “For the best. He’s a great kid. He can hit. He can rake. We’re all going to have some real fun with him.”