Cardinals' rally brings playoffs back into focus

SAN FRANCISCO -- There were a lot of references to the playoffs in the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse after their come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday at AT&T Park.

“This was definitely a playoff atmosphere,” Matt Adams said.

“This is playoff baseball already for us. We’re playing every single game like it’s our last,” Kolten Wong said.

“Personally, I think every game from here on out is a must-win, especially if you want to make the playoffs,” Mike Leake said.

At this time of year, rhetoric can change dramatically from game to game, if not pitch to pitch. Had the Cardinals not rallied Saturday, any reference to the postseason would have had a yearning tone to it in a silent postgame clubhouse. The Cardinals' chances would have looked desperate, with just one more head-to-head shot at a team they are chasing and a three-game deficit to make up in two weeks.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Wong said. Later, he added, “The Mets aren’t going to give it to us, and neither are these guys.”

On Saturday, the Cardinals went out and took it. For the first time in nearly a week, they came up with a couple clutch singles, and that was enough to push across the two ninth-inning runs that won the game.

Jedd Gyorko has played in the National League West for years and has a good idea of the movement on Sergio Romo's wipeout slider. He confined his thoughts to, “just try to push the slider away from me.”

With one out in the ninth, Gyorko pulled a single into left field. After pinch runner Tommy Pham stole second, Santiago Casilla walked Yadier Molina. Then Randal Grichuk fought a fastball off his hands and managed to guide it into center field to tie the game and put the go-ahead run at third. That run scored on Wong’s sacrifice fly.

The Cardinals didn’t just rally. They were the aggressors after six games, including five losses, in which they mostly looked inert while drifting out of the playoff picture. Now, they trail the Giants and Mets by two games, and on Sunday, they have another shot to bring the Giants closer. Beyond that, they’re going to need help, but the task seems far more attainable now than it would have with another loss.

“I don’t keep track of how many in a row. I can feel it, and I know the guys feel it,” manager Mike Matheny said. “We watch where everyone else is. We know where everyone else stands.”

The Cardinals were able to shift some of the bad vibes that would have tailed them onto the opposing team. After Casilla failed to record an out while blowing another save, fans booed him and manager Bruce Bochy as they left the field.

The pregame atmosphere in the Cardinals’ clubhouse was a bit charged, with a team meeting planned for just before they took the field.

It sometimes appears that the Cardinals do not have ideal clubhouse chemistry, which would not be uncommon this late in a season. Before Saturday’s game, all the Spanish-speaking players sat around a table in a far corner of the clubhouse. Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Trevor Rosenthal were throwing a football in right field, rather than spending time with their teammates.

Molina refused to answer reporters' questions when he clearly was the story of Friday’s game, as he made an error that led to six unearned runs. It’s not rare for Molina to avoid reporters, but it is rare for him to refuse to face accountability in instances that call for it. Because Molina didn’t speak, rookie pitcher Luke Weaver had to answer all the tough questions after his aborted start.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Matheny called the team meeting Saturday. It lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Matheny didn’t want to discuss the topic, citing baseball’s longstanding code of keeping team agendas under tight wraps and for fear it would be viewed as “eyewash.” He said he “absolutely loathes” the idea that the rest of this season’s narrative will be written around Saturday’s meeting.

“Our guys always talk too. It’s not just one voice," Matheny said. "It’s multiple voices trying to help and show especially our younger players who have never been here before what it should look like and the demands we have of ourselves and each other and the thought process of how we view ourselves, regardless of what anybody else thinks."

The Cardinals played a focused game Saturday, but they aren't hitting much, particularly in the clutch. Brandon Moss hit a solo home run off Jeff Samardzija in the first inning, but that was all the hitters managed until the ninth. As in the game Friday, they had their chances. Double-play balls hit by Grichuk killed rallies in the second and seventh innings. Grichuk also took a called third strike -- for the third time in the series -- to strand Adams at second base in the fourth.

Leake gave the Cardinals about what they could have hoped for: not dominance but a strong opportunity to win. He held San Francisco to two runs on seven hits in six innings. Wong couldn’t get a handle on Eduardo Nunez's little nubber in the second inning, but it wasn’t an egregious error because he held the other runner at third.

And so the Cardinals managed to survive a tense game in a hostile place, and that leaves them with another chance to do so on Sunday. Every game might not be must-win from here on out, but playing well certainly isn’t optional.