ST. LOUIS — The sharp, taut style of game the St. Louis Cardinals want to play this season, said they would play, worked all spring to play, and so rarely did play last season was there for eight innings against the reigning World Series champions.
When it faltered in the ninth, they had the power to overcome.
Randal Grichuk homered in the eighth inning to give the Cardinals some breathing room and when that collapsed, he delivered a game-ending blast to the gap for a 4-3 victory against the Chicago Cubs on opening night at Busch Stadium. Grichuk's RBI single scored Jose Martinez from third to end a game the Cubs tied, 3-3, in the top of the ninth. Grichuk's hit gave the Cardinals what they haven't had in their 125 years in the National League — a win on opening day against the Cubs as reigning champs.
Lower the W, for a day.
"Seeing them win it put a little sour taste in our mouths," Grichuk said. "So it's good to get any 'W,' especially opening day. ... When they say this game is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, I'm 100 percent a believer on that. Starting off good definitely boosts the confidence."
Grichuk's single gave the Cardinals a happy ending to a game that had such strong beginnings. The swirl around the Cardinals all day Sunday was about securing catcher Yadier Molina's permanence and asserting pitcher Carlos Martinez's promise. Hours before the first pitch, the Cardinals announced a three-year, $60 million extension with their Gold Glove catcher that probably assures the entirety of his career will be spent with St. Louis. With the first pitch, Martinez wrested all of the attention, throwing a 10-strikeout gem in his first career opening-day start. The Cardinals had their clean, crisp game complete with aggressive baserunning, and Martinez was in control, never pitching with a lead greater than 1-0.
At the start of the game, he walked to the back of the mound and etched in an "18" and circled it, and followed with a "30" and circled it. The former was for the late Oscar Taveras, whose number Martinez wears as a tribute, and the latter for Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura, who was killed in a car wreck this past offseason. Martinez referred to them as "brothers" after the game and said he intends to sign their numbers before every start.
He relished this one.
"I like to take advantage of every opportunity I get," Martinez said after his 7 1/3-inning no decision. "Some opportunities don't come around all the time. It was an opportunity to show St. Louis and the Cardinals that I am the man for the job, and obviously showcase my talent to the world."
As they did in 1909, the last time they were defending World Series champs, the Cubs opened against the Cardinals. The two Midwestern clubs have the longest rivalry in North American sports between two teams that have never moved cities, and the Cardinals, before joining the NL 125 years ago, were founded with the purpose of challenging the Cubs for championships. Challenge they have. Before Sunday's game, the Cardinals had their annual opening festivities, complete with seven Hall of Famers arranged around home plate, separated only by four trophies from the teams' 11 World Series championships.
The Cubs counter with the most recent championship.
And they answered in the ninth.
As rain fell and Martinez left the game, the Cardinals let a 3-0 lead slip from their fingers. The Cubs knotted the game in the top of the ninth inning as Seung Hwan Oh pressed on for a five-out save, something he did only once last summer. He got the ground ball that would have been the Cardinals' second out of the ninth inning, and instead first baseman Matt Carpenter lost the grip on the ball and Jason Heyward slid into first, so the Cardinals had no outs on the play and the Cubs had the tying run at the plate. Willson Contreras made it matter. He launched a 414-foot home run into the seats to tie the score at 3-3.
The Cardinals never had a lead greater than 1-0 as Martinez muzzled the Cubs through his 7 1/3 innings. Martinez struck out seven of the Cubs' nine starters as he made Carpenter's sacrifice-fly RBI in the third hold and hold and hold. Grichuk added some insurance — it seemed — with a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth. That gave Oh some margin for error as he neared a career high for pitches thrown.
"Thank God, we got the win today," Oh said.
That started with Jose Martinez's pinch-hit double in place of Oh. An intentional walk to Molina followed to set up a forceout. Kolten Wong worked a key walk to bring Grichuk to the plate. With two outs, he lined a single to left-center off Mike Montgomery. With two swings, Grichuk provided three runs, and they were the Cardinals' only three runs off hits. Their 1-0 lead was built off running and a sacrifice fly.
In short, it came from offense the Cardinals reimagined.
Cubs starter Jon Lester had only one inning without a runner on base, and that was the inning he faced the bottom third of the Cardinals' lineup for the second time. It was also the inning that bumped up his pitch count to 81 — through four innings. Although the Cardinals had six hits, seven baserunners, and Aledmys Diaz's two steals against Lester through five innings, they squeezed one run out of all that traffic. The Cubs lefty bent before breaking loose every time, often in a flurry of strikeouts.
The Cardinals went hitless in their first seven at-bats with runners in scoring position, and six of them ended with a Lester strikeout.
The only successful chance the Cardinals had with a runner in scoring position was set up by the kind of running the Cardinals want to have this season, spent most of spring working to have this season. Leadoff hitter Fowler broke from first on a hit-and-run with Diaz at the plate. Diaz skipped a grounder past second baseman Javy Baez, who had jab-stepped toward second base. The single allowed Fowler to get to third, and he raced the throw home on Carpenter's fly out to right field to score the first run of the season.
All seven of Lester's strikeouts came with a runner on base.
Six came with a runner in scoring position.
What all that activity did was bloat Lester's pitch count. The lefty needed 43 pitches to get six outs from the Cardinals. Martinez was through three innings on the same amount.
When Lester's pitch count caught up with him, he left a mess for the Cubs' bullpen to scrub. Molina started the trouble with his second single of the game, and Stephen Piscotty followed with a walk on Lester's 102nd pitch. In came righthander Carl Edwards Jr., and down went the Cardinals rally. Wong grounded out for the first out. Edwards walked Grichuk to load the bases, but rather than go to a pinch-hitter for Martinez, manager Mike Matheny stuck with his starter. Martinez worked a lengthy at-bat, and then bounced into the worst possible outcome, a double play.
Matheny's choice to stay with him revealed his status.
"How do you take him out?" Matheny said. "We're making a statement here. He's our opening-day guy. This is what an opening-day guy does."
Given a chance to blow the game open at the plate, Matheny stayed with the pitcher who had it in control from the mound. At the point Martinez went to the plate with the bases loaded, he had retired the previous 10 Cubs he'd faced. He had just ended the sixth inning with a strikeout of reigning MVP Kris Bryant. It was the third time in three tries Martinez had struck out Bryant. Entering the game, Bryant had struck out eight times in 24 plate appearances against the Cardinals, and only two hitters in the majors had struck out more often against the Cardinals' righthander — Andrew McCutchen and Fowler. By the end of the sixth, Bryant was alone with 11 strikeouts in 27 plate appearances.
Martinez got Bryant with a 100-mph fastball in the first inning, an 87-mph changeup to end the third inning, and the 98-mph fastball for the sixth inning.
The furthest a Cub got against Martinez through the sixth, was second.
Kyle Schwarber got there twice.
He never scored.