ST. PETERSBURG — The Cardinals suffered their most crushing defeat of the season Tuesday, losing when they took the lead into the bottom of the 10th inning and were one strike away from their third extra-inning victory in as many games.
As deflating as it was to fall 4-2 to the Rays at Tropicana Field on a walk-off three-run home run by Taylor Walls that clanged off the right-field foul pole, the rotten result did absolutely nothing to dull the awe that Cardinals players had after seeing nine-time Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado make their finest defensive play of the season.
Even in a locker room that was eerily quiet following the loss, one player after another raved about a play where Arenado raced in to field a bunt, jumped in the air and threw back to third base for a force out even though the momentum of his body was flying in the other direction.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody do ‘The [Derek] Jeter Jump Throw’ to third base before,” gushed starting pitcher Dakota Hudson, who failed to get a win despite allowing just one run on two hits and one walk over seven innings. “I was in [the clubhouse] finishing up my [cool-down] routine and I was just in awe of the play. It’s something that you see from great players. He had such great awareness on the play.”
Added Paul Goldschmidt, a four-time Gold Glover himself: “I don’t know of another guy in the league who makes that play. Nine times out of 10, that [bunt] works. I mean, what a play. I’ve never seen a play like that before.”
Fresh off wins in the 10th inning (Saturday) and the 11th inning (Sunday) in Chicago against the rival Cubs, the Cardinals were trying to win in extra innings in three straight games for the first time since doing so in walk-off fashion May 1-3, 2015, against the Pirates at Busch Stadium.
It looked like they were poised to do just that when Harrison Bader drove home the tying run in the eighth inning and Lars Nootbaar plated the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th on a sacrifice fly.
In the bottom of the 10th, Drew VerHagen walked the leadoff hitter before Tampa Bay’s Brett Phillips bunted. However, Arenado — a Gold Glove winner in all nine of his previous MLB seasons — sprinted in, fielded the ball and made a jump throw back to third all in one motion.
“The last time Nolan Arenado was here, he made one of the best plays I’ve ever seen on a bunt from [former Ray] Willy Adames,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “And then tonight, I mean, I don’t know how many third basemen can do that and have that type of body control and athleticism. So it was a frustrating moment.”
Added Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol: “It’s one thing to do that in the middle innings or early in the game, but people don’t take that risk, and he made it look really easy. That was a heck of a play.”
Arenado’s latest defensive gem in a career full of them seemingly had the Cardinals on track to win again. Following the Arenado out that had the decidedly pro-St. Louis crowd roaring, VerHagen got Yandy Díaz to pop up, and he had Walls behind in the count. However, Walls — who entered as a .151 hitter — smashed a ball that left his bat at 104.1 mph. While there was some intrigue as to whether the ball would stay fair — or hit the pole for a home run as it did — VerHagen had a sickening feeling all along.
VerHagen, who came in for the 10th even though bullpen ace Ryan Helsley threw just 11 pitches in the ninth, said, “I thought it was fair right off the bat. He barreled it up, and then it was game over.”
The only redeeming part of the outing for VerHagen? He thought he would be the one to field Phillips’ bunt, until Arenado cut in front of him. VerHagen had the best view in the house of Arenado’s whirling throw that he said will go down as one of the best defensive gems he’s ever seen.
“It was right back to me, but Nolan’s there to make that play,” said the 6-foot-6 VerHagen, who had to duck to not be beaned by Arenado’s throw. “That was unbelievable. I’ve never seen that in my life, and I had a front-row seat for it. Just an unbelievable play.”