CHICAGO -- In one of those middle innings where nothing was going on, well before the St. Louis Cardinals rallied for one of their more uplifting wins of their season, catcher Yadier Molina started something in the dugout.
"He was vocal and, all of a sudden, you look to your right and to your left and more guys are being vocal," Stephen Piscotty said of Molina's actions during the Cardinals' 6-4 comeback win over the Chicago Cubs. "All of the sudden, we had this tremendous wave of energy and then, after that big inning, we were roaring. I think after that, we're just going to try to keep that momentum moving forward."
Nowadays, when Molina looks around his own dugout, a lot of the faces he sees are of guys who were in high school -- or, in pitcher Alex Reyes' case, fourth grade -- when he broke into the major leagues. But what the Cardinals are hoping is that this hybrid team melded from veterans with championship pedigrees and the latest wave of young talent can carry them to something unexpected this season.
The most important pitching performance of the night came from Matt Bowman, a 25-year-old who came out of nowhere or, more specifically, the Rule 5 draft. The biggest hits came from Piscotty, another 25-year-old, who is fighting back from the longest slump of his young career, and Randal Grichuk, a 25-year-old fighting back from a career that almost stalled before it started.
The past two tilts of this four-game series proved that the Cardinals aren't just going to bow to the Cubs' greatness -- even if they acknowledge a division title is a lost cause -- and that they surprisingly aren't as far behind the Cubs in the young talent department as it initially seemed.
"It's so loud and there's just so much excitement about the other side. Right in the middle of a game, it kind of brings out the best in a group like this," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "They're playing well, no question, but it's nice to see our guys not back off."
Everything about this Cardinals season took on a different tone after the team promoted its two top pitching prospects, threw them into the mix and then acknowledged it was going with a youth movement. The wild-card route to the playoffs is still within reach -- the Cardinals still have the second spot in their grasp -- but building for 2017 will take precedence over a hard push for the wild card.
So far, there's no evidence the former will impede the latter.
Before the game, manager Matheny said 22-year-old pitcher Luke Weaver, who started the season at Double-A Springfield, will remain in the rotation. That means his second major league start will be Saturday in Philadelphia. Matheny also said the team's top pitching prospect, Reyes, will remain in the bullpen and be used in "as significant a role as he can handle."
Reyes, 21, hadn't pitched in relief since a few years ago, when he used to come in occasionally from shortstop to do a little pitching for Elizabeth High School in New Jersey. The Cardinals were intrigued enough about his 100 mph fastball and secondary pitches to promote him and, thus far, he has looked as good as advertised, working four scoreless innings, with four strikeouts.
"You can't find that on the market," general manager John Mozeliak said.
Reyes' presence was one of the reasons the Cardinals weren't more active around the trade deadline, acquiring left-hander Zach Duke as their only move.
The Cardinals still view Reyes' future as that of a starting pitcher. He and Weaver could be part of the rotation for 2017. Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake and Carlos Martinez will be back. Leake had his best start since July 18, holding Chicago to three runs in six innings.
The Cardinals also might have found a useful bullpen piece in an unlikely place. They have kept Bowman on their roster all season, because otherwise, they would have to offer him back to the New York Mets, the team whose roster they took him from in the Rule 5 draft. Lately, Bowman has moved into higher-leverage situations. He got out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the seventh inning with a couple of shallow popups and a strikeout of Dexter Fowler.
"I don't know about higher leverage. I've been in a few others, I feel like, and I don't always get the job done," Bowman said. "It's gratifying in that I want to reward them when they seem to reward me."
Picking up Jaime Garcia's $12 million option seems like a no-brainer if he stays healthy. Michael Wacha's future is under a dark cloud because of recurring shoulder injuries, but Lance Lynn's return from Tommy John surgery could coincide nicely with Opening Day.
The Cardinals will have adequate depth at every position on the infield once Aledmys Diaz returns, but they still have to figure out what to do in center field for the long term. That's why they plan to give Grichuk another chance to establish himself. Matheny scheduled an afternoon meeting with Grichuk to explain that he'll be given adequate opportunity to re-establish himself after having been demoted twice this season.
Grichuk responded with an RBI double to pad the Cardinals' lead in the eighth.
With Matt Holliday out due to a broken thumb, the debate lately has been about what to do with Matt Carpenter. Recently, Matheny has been using him in the No. 3 hole, but he could put him back at leadoff if Piscotty emerges from a long soft stretch. Piscotty is showing signs of it. He hit a deep drive to the base of the wall on Saturday. And he hit one way over on Sunday: Piscotty's three-run blast, which sparked an uncharacteristically emotional response -- a yell and a Sammy Sosa-style bunny hop -- turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 Cardinals lead in the eighth inning.
Piscotty, who one could have built an argument was an All-Star snub, had a .555 OPS in his previous 20 games.
"I've been feeling good for a couple of days now," Piscotty said.
Then there is Diaz, the 25-year-old shortstop who should return by the end of the month from a fractured right hand and fuel the Cardinals' optimism for the future. He had the third-best OPS on the team when he was struck by an Andrew Cashner fastball in Miami a couple of weeks ago. The Cardinals, in some ways, have missed Diaz more than they have missed their best hitter, Carpenter, because they don't have the depth at shortstop that they have on the right side of the infield. Greg Garcia went into Sunday in an 0 for 30 slump. The Cardinals no longer think Jhonny Peralta has the range to play shortstop every day.
"Aledmys had a presence in the lineup, no question about it. I found a good fit for him in the second spot, and that allowed us to be creative with everyone else," Matheny said. "The rest of the league started to realize this guy's a formidable bat to go along with the shortstop position."
The Cardinals are putting the pieces in place for what they hope will be a promising future and finding it could lead to a perfectly enjoyable present.