The buzz throughout the day on September 30, 2016 was palpable. I was at work, a 30-minute-even-without-traffic drive away from Busch Stadium, and it was still resonant for me. It was not an unfamiliar feeling–the St. Louis Cardinals had, after all, reached the postseason in five consecutive seasons prior to this one. But with the Pittsburgh Pirates, below .500 in a dramatic departure from their 98-win 2015 season, in town for a three-game series against the Cardinals, there was a sense of cautious optimism about the Cardinals.
The night before, the Cardinals’ ultra-reliable closer Seung-hwan Oh, who would finish his age-33 rookie season with a 1.92 ERA, a 2.13 FIP, and nineteen saves to show for his efforts, had surrendered a two-out, two-strike, game-tying infield single to Cincinnati Reds outfielder Scott Schebler in the top of the ninth inning, but the Cardinals exacted their revenge in the bottom of the ninth: with two outs and Matt Carpenter standing on first base, Yadier Molina hit a double deep into left field and Carpenter, not exactly a speed demon but running on contact with two outs, scurried home in time to give the Cardinals a 4-3 victory, despite the Reds’ (ummm, valid) protests that Molina’s hit should have been ruled a Ground Rule Double.
After the night’s events, which included a 7-2 victory by the San Francisco Giants over the Colorado Rockies after the more reasonable among us had gone to bed, the Cardinals stood two games behind the New York Mets and one game behind the Giants for either of the National League’s two Wild Card spots (the Chicago Cubs, who stood at 101-57, had long ago solidified the National League Central). Passing the Mets was going to be a tall order–they had a two-game cushion over the Cardinals and were facing the lowly Philadelphia Phillies–but the Giants were facing the Los Angeles Dodgers, their bitter rivals who still had playoff seeding motivation. A one-game deficit against the Giants, even with the Giants’ Even Year Magic (or, if you prefer more profane terms for it, I’ll allow that too) and propensity for beating the Cardinals during such seasons? I’ll take that. Who wouldn’t take that? Who, after the ample playoff successes of the last half-decade, wouldn’t like the Cardinals’ chances?
The 2016 Cardinals were something of a hodgepodge of older players and youngsters for whom it was not yet known whether they would become a part of the next legitimately great St. Louis Cardinals team. This was the season where the team’s two leading home run hitters were Jedd Gyorko, a utility infielder who started 25+ games at three positions, and Brandon Moss, a 2015 trade deadline addition who spent the season substituting at first base or a corner outfield spot, usually for Matt Adams or Matt Holliday.
2016 was the final guaranteed season of the seven-year, $120 million contract that Matt Holliday signed in January 2010, inked after the left fielder had tested free agency following a two-plus month stint as a July addition to the 2009 team. And although Holliday never credibly challenged to win a Most Valuable Player award, as he had done with the Rockies in 2007, he was a reliable fixture in the Cardinals lineup throughout, never the single best player on the team but reliably among the better handful of them. In the first six seasons of the contract, Holliday was an All-Star and/or an MVP vote recipient each year. But 2016 had been, though not a full-blown disaster, a noticeable step back for the Cardinals’ left fielder. Holliday entered the final series of the season with a wRC+ of 106–again, not a disaster, but this was a player whose previous low was 125. More significantly, though, was that Holliday hadn’t played for the Cardinals since August 11, when he was hit by a pitch in the 10th inning from Mike Montgomery and broke his thumb. To add insult to injury for the Cardinals, the team lost the game in eleven; to add insult to injury for Cardinals fans, this was nowhere close to the most famous Mike Montgomery moment for the Cubs that season.
I had a ticket for the Sunday afternoon game for weeks before that, and being reasonably confident that the Friday game would be meaningful regardless of future outcomes, I had bought tickets for Friday night earlier in the week. After I left work on Friday, I headed to a gas station and while I was pumping, I checked my phone and saw a pair of stories which had broken almost simultaneously–that the Cardinals were going to activate Matt Holliday, and that the Cardinals were going to decline their $17 million option on Holliday for the 2017 season.
Neither news item was especially surprising–expanded rosters in the 2016 season were still at 40 players, so there was minimal risk in activating Holliday even if they planned to just keep him on the bench all weekend, and the fact that Holliday’s 2017 option being picked up remained a viable possibility as late as it did into his guaranteed years reflects positively on how well Matt Holliday aged. But the timing was a bit unusual. When the Cardinals officially announced the news, a couple hours after initial media reports, that Holliday was being activated, it came alongside a statement from Matt Holliday. That the Cardinals were not going to pay Holliday an additional $16 million for 2017 (they owed him a $1 million buyout regardless) was hardly a surprise, but the delivery of Holliday’s statement, not to mention the suite of “Thank you Matt Holliday” stadium graphics that appeared at Busch Stadium that night, suggested that the parties had closed the book on the possibility of Holliday coming back at a lower price the next season. And even though activating a player who had broken his thumb a month and a half ago didn’t cause much harm, the Cardinals were bracing for some meaningful games. Surely, it would take a highly unusual set of circumstances for the Cardinals to deploy the almost certainly rusty veteran, so why even invite the questions?
The group with whom I was attending the game congregated at Paddy O’s, the bar next door to Busch Stadium with an atmosphere driven almost exclusively by stadium foot traffic. The Holliday news had given the environment of the bar a strangely somber vibe–the unexpectedness of its timing had thrown everybody for a loop. It wasn’t as though anybody was in tears, but the speed with which one of the greatest Cardinals of the last decade was going to be out of our daily lives was jarring. But ultimately, the game ahead was why we had come, and the pitching matchup for the Cardinals seemed favorable: Carlos Martínez, in the midst of what was probably his best season, was taking the mound for St. Louis, while a young rookie named Tyler Glasnow, who would eventually become rather good with the Tampa Bay Rays but was not there yet, was making his fourth career MLB start for Pittsburgh.
Glasnow, for his part, did his job, surrendering just a solo home run off the bat of Jedd Gyorko in his five innings of work. But Martínez was even better, and entering the bottom of the sixth inning, the Cardinals held a precious 1-0 lead. Glasnow was lifted for Trevor Williams, however, and the Cardinals bats came to life. Aledmys Díaz reached first base on a John Jaso error, and a pair of doubles from Yadier Molina and Stephen Piscotty gave the Cardinals some breathing room. Two batters later, a Brandon Moss home run gave the Cardinals a 5-0 lead, and although Carlos Martínez continued to roll through the top of the seventh, his spot in the batting order was coming up to lead off the bottom of the seventh. A 5-0 lead meant the Cardinals had a roughly 99% chance (literally, not colloquially) of winning the game, so they could take their chances with their pinch hitter, and with a lefty pitcher taking the mound for the Pirates, perhaps a hard-hitting righty bat wasn’t such a bad option anyway. So the Cardinals called on Matt Holliday.
The crowd, unsurprisingly, roared for Holliday, lending him what may have been the loudest ovation he received since he debuted as a home player at Busch Stadium seven years prior. Holliday, despite his reputation as a steady, stoic player, was visibly moved, fighting back tears that even I, sitting in the 400s at Busch Stadium without a clear view of his face, could sense. Zach Phillips, who would sign a minor league contract with the Cardinals a couple months later but would never again pitch in Major League Baseball after this game, was not in a position to acquiesce to the emotions of the moment. Phillips attacked Holliday directly, pumping in a first-pitch strike that Holliday watched sail down the middle of the strike zone. Holliday took a rough cut at a somewhat low pitch, fouling it off but looking at least somewhat clumsy in the process. The broken thumb was likely healed, sure, but that did not necessarily mean he was ready to stare down MLB competition. But on pitch number three, Holliday removed all doubt, driving a curve ball the opposite direction and into the Cardinals’ bullpen and prompting the single most obvious curtain call in baseball history.
After the game, which the Cardinals concluded with a 7-0 lead, we retreated back to Paddy O’s and I bought tickets for Saturday’s game–how could I, after experiencing the sheer high of Busch Stadium, not go back for a second dose? The Giants won later that night, but the Giants carrying the game started by Madison Bumgarner was always the expectation, and the next game saw Clayton Kershaw going for the Dodgers against something called Ty Blach. It was impossible to imagine the Cardinals not sweeping the series at this point.
The Matt Holliday home run on Friday night became the iconic clip of his tenure as a St. Louis Cardinal, and given the emotion of Holliday, the screaming fans in the stands, and Dan McLaughlin on the oft-replayed television broadcast, it’s easy to see why. But this was not, despite McLaughlin’s predictions, the end of the Matt Holliday Farewell Tour. It was just the beginning.
The next day saw another rookie taking the mound for the Pirates, albeit one far more entrenched on the Major League roster, Chad Kuhl, while the Cardinals went with Michael Wacha, who had been an All-Star the season before but had struggled to a 4.93 ERA in 2016 and hadn’t pitched in nearly two months. The optimism which had brewed in the hearts of Cardinals fans since Holliday’s heroics sixteen hours before began to collapse almost immediately. Wacha allowed a first-inning single and a first-inning walk and although he nearly escaped the inning without suffering any damage on the scoreboard, a two-out home run by Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang gave the Pirates a 3-0 lead. And although Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was hardly known for having a sense of urgency regarding the bullpen (nor for having a lack of faith in Michael Wacha), his starter did not see the second inning. Miguel Socolovich held things down for the second inning, and Trevor Rosenthal, whose 2016 campaign had been easily the worst of his career, redeemed many of those demons with three scoreless innings. But the Cardinals offense stagnated, and even with Matt Bowman shutting down the Pirates in the top of the sixth, they entered the bottom of the frame still trailing 3-0.
Starting in the bottom of the sixth, the Cardinals offense seemed to come to life. On the first pitch he saw, Jhonny Peralta singled, and the next batter, Brandon Moss, doubled to put runners on second and third base. The Pirates went to reliever Antonio Bastardo, and one Jedd Gyorko strikeout later, it appeared that he might be able to stifle the storm. But with a full count, Randal Grichuk drew a walk on a wild pitch which brought home Peralta and sent Moss to third base. The Cardinals now trailed 3-1, but with runners on the corners and nobody out, they had developed a puncher’s chance. With the reliever Bowman due up, the Cardinals once again needed a pinch-hitter. And while the previous night’s Matt Holliday cameo was likely driven primarily by sentiment, bringing him to the plate against Juan Nicasio was driven by need. Matt Holliday may have been too limited to start for the Cardinals, but they still viewed him as a useful pinch-hitter. And on a 2-1 count, Holliday placed a single into right field which scored Moss, pushed Grichuk to third base, and turned the Cardinals’ deficit to just one run and made them favorites to emerge victorious.
Holliday was replaced by a pinch-runner, Tommy Pham, who was, ironically, picked off first base, but not before a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly evened the game. This Holliday cameo became my personal favorite of the weekend–I certainly can’t argue against the Friday night home run, but a largely ceremonial home run did not define Matt Holliday in the same way that a solid, “guy just kind of doing his job for a winning team” base hit did. In the eighth inning, Jedd Gyorko hit a go-ahead home run which gave the Cardinals a lead they would not relinquish–it is a moment which has only increased in estimation over the years as it involves a pitcher (Felipe Vázquez, then Felipe Rivero), now in jail, who truly deserves misfortune.
Improbably, the Giants took their Saturday game as well, with Ty Blach throwing eight shutout innings before Sergio Romo closed out the game in the ninth inning. The Mets also won on Saturday, therefore assuring that the Giants and Cardinals would be competing for a single spot in the postseason, with its victor traveling to Citi Field for the Wild Card Game.
2016 was the inaugural season of a now-annual tradition–all games on the final day of the regular season started at the same time. Well, roughly the same time–the precision of this endeavor keeps games relatively clustered together, thus avoiding teams making a complete mockery of games they might otherwise view as significant. This gap became evident fairly quickly, as the Dodgers-Giants game began ten minutes before Cardinals-Pirates, and the Giants scored two runs before the Cardinals even came to bat. The Giants held a five-run lead before the Cardinals even came to bat in the second inning. For most of the afternoon, it was readily apparent that we were watching the final St. Louis Cardinals game of the season.
But that didn’t stop the Cardinals from showing up. Adam Wainwright, who had been shaky throughout much of the season, was excellent, striking out eight and allowing just two runs in six innings of work. And while Wainwright left the mound for the final time with a 2-1 deficit, a Matt Carpenter three-run home run assured that Wainwright, who had been pinch-hit for by José Martínez, would not be saddled with a loss. The top of the seventh was shakier–relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton allowed a leadoff single to Adam Frazier which was followed by a two-run home run by John Jaso, evening the game. But the Cardinals dominated in the bottom of the inning, adding six runs to their count and giving the Cardinals a 10-4 lead. After a quiet eighth inning, the end result from San Francisco was revealed on the stadium scoreboard–the Giants had won and the Cardinals had been eliminated. For the first time since 2010, St. Louis would not play host to the Major League Baseball postseason.
And yet, in the moment, it didn’t matter. Something unorthodox was happening in left field. Matt Holliday, a left fielder who had so frequently been substituted out of games late throughout his Cardinals career, was instead being substituted into left field as a defensive replacement for Brandon Moss, receiving a requisite standing ovation. One Dean Kiekhefer pitch later, with the season’s outcome in doubt and not a single ball put in play, Tommy Pham ran out to left field and Matt Holliday ran back to the dugout, receiving yet another ovation.
The Cardinals went on to win the game, though this did not change the order of the standings. But the mood as we exited Busch Stadium was triumphant, far more exuberant and joyous than the mood at Paddy O’s forty-seven hours and reasonable postseason hope ago. One memorable weekend later, St. Louis had the chance to process what was happening and celebrate.
This weekend, Matt Holliday will be inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, inducted after his first year on the fan-voted ballot. The weekend’s slate of games at Busch Stadium will be full of tributes to the newest Hall of Fame class, including a Matt Holliday t-shirt giveaway on Saturday. It will mark the second weekend paying tribute to the Cardinals career of Matt Holliday.