Cardinals squander three leads in late innings, fall to Toronto in opener

Tribune Content Agency

ST. LOUIS — The three losses the Cardinals misplaced in the late innings on the scoreboard took a backseat to the one loss on the field in the eighth inning.

An exuberant, whipsaw, and even historic opening day turn a deflating turn when catcher Willson Contreras took a fastball to the right knee and was unable to continue. In his absence, the Cardinals were able to still rally for another lead only to squander it in the ninth. The game’s third and final lead change after the seventh inning came against Cardinals’ All-Star closer Ryan Helsley.

George Springer’s fifth hit of the game tied the score in the top of the ninth, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. followed with a sacrifice fly that sent Toronto to a 10-9 victory Thursday evening at Busch Stadium.

The Blue Jays scored in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings.

The Cardinals misspent leads in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings.

Toronto got two runs on two hits and walk off Helsley for the win as the first American League team to visit St. Louis for the regular-season opener. Blue Jays’ closer Jordan Romano retired the side in the ninth with two strikeouts to secure the win.

Question will await both teams – how the Blue Jays invited trouble and found it to fall behind, and how the Cardinals will manage catcher with Contreras’ bruised knee. The decision to challenge one of the favorites to win the National League MVP and not skip over Nolan Arenado to face a backup catcher unexpectedly could have proved costly for Toronto.

A seesaw game found another pivotal point in the bottom of the eighth inning as Toronto met on the mound with the tying and go-ahead on base. Due up for the Cardinals was Arenado, the third-place finished in the MVP vote this past season and a hitter primed coming out of spring training.

On deck, Andrew Knizner.

The Cardinals’ backup catcher, who was challenged for that role all spring, entered the game in the top of the inning as a replacement for Contreras. That put Knizner at the No. 5 spot in the order, right behind cleanup hitter Arenado. With first base open, the Blue Jays had right-hander Yimi Garcia test Arenado, not pass by him. Arenado pounced – with a two-run, rulebook double into the left-field corner that scored Lars Nootbaar and Goldschmidt.

The two RBIs tied the game and seized a 9-8 lead.

Knizner popped up a bunt trying to advance Arenado.

Curious decisions dotted the box score as neither team got five innings from their opening day starting pitchers. The Cardinals trailed by three runs before they came to bat. They trailed by three runs again in the bottom of the third. Each time, they rallied, finally matching Toronto in the bottom of the fourth with Brendan Donovan’s game-tying homer.

To seize leads they could not hold, the Cardinals turned to the reigning MVP and the youngest player in the majors.

Donovan’s third hit of the game sparked the sixth inning and Goldschmidt snapped a 5-5 tie with a single for his first RBI of the season. That lead didn’t last through the top of the seventh. In the bottom of the inning, the game gave young Jordan Walker the bases loaded with a tie game in his major-league debut.

The first 20-year-old position player to debut for the Cardinals on opening day in 100 years, already had his first hit, his first play in the field, and here was that first moment.

What it lacked in dramatic outcome, it covered with substance.

Walker hit a groundball and outran the double play to produce an RBI that snapped the 6-6 tie and once again gave the Cardinals’ bullpen a chance to hold down a lead. It did not.

Contreras knocked from game by fastball to knee

A wild pitch that would help cost the Cardinals their lead may have bruised far more than the scoreboard and first game of the season.

Jordan Hicks spiked a 102.7-mph sinker and it bulldozed into catcher Contreras’ right knee after skipping off the dirt. Contreras got up, hobbled, and chased down the wild pitch as two Jays baserunners advanced. But when he returned to the plate, he was clearly in pain. After a visit from one of the team’s athletic trainers and manager Oliver Marmol, Contreras left the game. He was replaced behind the plate by Andrew Knizner for the final two innings.

Contreras was in the process of making the most of his Cardinals debut.

Sporting cleats he designed as a tribute to Yadier Molina, Contreras was the first catcher not named Molina since 2004 to start for the Cardinals on opening day. His tribute went beyond footwear. Contreras threw out a runner in the seventh inning to vaporize a scoring threat from Toronto. Contreras also had two singles and two runs scored in his two-for-four debut.

Contreras had a bruised right knee and will be re-evaluated Friday, the Cardinals announced in the ninth inning.

Wild exchange of runs

That wild pitch put two runners in scoring position and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. capitalized with a single that flipped the game on the Cardinals. Again.

The Cardinals misplaced their second lead in the late innings when Guerrero drove home George Springer and Bo Bichette to take an 8-7 edge. Springer and Bichette had started the inning with their fourth hits of the game. The top two batters in Toronto’s lineup had reached base a combined eight times through eight innings. The duo became the 14th to each have four hits in a single game and the first since Aaron Miles did it with Clint Barmes in 2005 for Colorado.

Bo’s father Dante Bichette had four hits alongside Colorado teammate Vinny Castilla on opening day in April 1999.

Bo was a year old.

‘Mr. Opening Day’ O’Neill ties MLB record

The immediate result was animating the Cardinals after an early deficit. The long-term impact will take another year to determine.

Tyler O’Neill, a noted practitioner of opening day home runs, drilled a two-run homer into the right-center seats with two outs in the third inning. The shot off Blue Jays’ right-hander Alek Manoah traveled an estimated 403 feet. O’Neill’s homer was Cardinals’ first true chomp into Toronto’s three-run lead and gave O’Neill a share of Major League Baseball history. He is the first non-catcher to homer in four consecutive opening day games.

O’Neill tied Hall of Fame catchers Yogi Berra and Gary Carter as well as catcher Todd Hundley for most consecutive opening days with home runs.

A swing for the record will have to wait till 2024.

Laborious start to speedier era for Mikolas

Before opening day starter Miles Mikolas could get his second out of the game, Toronto already had a 3-0 lead. Soft liners fell in for hits. Uppity grounders found seams in the infield. Mikolas’ pitch count climbed and the first inning lagged.

There was nothing a pitch clock could do.

Three of the first four hitters of the season reached base against Mikolas as Springer had the first of his three hits off Mikolas with a single to right field. A flipped single by American League hits leader Bichette put the rally in motion, and cleanup hitter Daulton Varsho delivered the first run of the season at Busch with a full-count double. Catcher Alejandro Kirk followed with a two-run single skipped up the middle to wide the Jays’ lead to 3-0.

It took Mikolas 37 pitches to get through the first inning, and Toronto got eight batters to the plate before their starter, Alek Manoah, threw a pitch.

The Blue Jays kept pecking away at Mikolas when the top of the order came around in the second inning. One of the league’s top run-scoring lineups a year ago, the Jays wanted to expand their offensive profile for this year – they hit the ball hard and far and now wanted to do it often. More balls in play could make more things happen, and by the end of the second inning they had riddled Mikolas with this approach.

Springer’s second single in as many innings and Bichette’s second hit in as many innings widen the Jays’ lead back to three runs in the second inning.

By the time Mikolas was removed from the game with two runners on in the fourth inning, Toronto had peppered him with 10 hits and collected five runs. Five of the singles Mikolas allowed left a Jays’ bat at 76 mph or slower.

Kid’s alright: Walker singles in first AB

With a base hit in his first major-league at-bat, rookie Walker became the youngest U.S-born player with a hit in his debut game since Bryce Harper in April 2012. At age 20 years, 312 days, Walker laced a single up the middle in the second inning.

Harper, 19 at the time of his debut, would turn 20 years, 312 days in August 2013, and Walker is the youngest U.S.-born player since then with a big-league hit.

Already the first position player his age or younger to debut for the Cardinals on opening day since 1923, Harper is the first Cardinal that young to get a hit on opening day as he makes his debut. He’s the 24th-youngest player in MLB history with a hit on opening day in his debut, and the most recent to do so was San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. on opening day 2019.

The only Cardinals younger than Walker to get a hit on opening day were future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (19 years, 351 days), shortstop Howard Freigau (20 years, 259 days), and center field Jack Smith (20 years, 294 days).

Edman benefits from first violation call

The first pitch clock violation at Busch Stadium aided the home team and played a small role in the game-tying rall. To lead off the fourth inning, Blue Jays pitcher Manoah waited too long to deliver the first pitch to No. 9 hitter Tommy Edman.

The Cardinals’ switch hitter started his at-bat with a 1-0 count before Manoah delivered a pitch. The Jays’ dugout took issue with the pitch-clock call but it’s not reviewable. The count would get to 3-0 and put Edman on the verge of a leadoff walk before a borderline pitch was called a strike. Edman poked another pitch in play to ease an infield single down the third-base line, and that was prelude to Donovan’s game-tying homer.