Silence fell over Busch Stadium, ominous in its omnipresence. The best fans in baseball, as they like to call themselves, sensed that they might be seeing their last home game this year.
It was bad enough that the St. Louis Cardinals had needed only two innings to blow a two-run lead. This was worse, way worse.
Yadier Molina, the soul of the team, had just hit a ground ball. He did not run. The manager came out to see him, and the athletic trainer too. The two men walked Molina back to the dugout, haltingly. The Cardinals announced Molina had a strained left oblique, an injury that generally takes weeks to heal.
The silence fell over the dugout too — “a little quieter than what I was hopeful for,” Manager Mike Matheny said.
On the eve of oblivion, the Cardinals rallied to win, in borderline unbelievable fashion. The team that hit the fewest home runs in the National League revived its season with four, including one in each of the final three innings.
“Perfect time,” Matheny said, “for us to bust out some power.”
Oscar Taveras, a pinch-hitter, tied the score with a home run in the seventh inning. Matt Adams gave St. Louis a lead with a home run in the eighth, accented by a bat flip that might have made Yasiel Puig blush.
And, after the San Francisco Giants tied the score when a runner scored from second base on a wild pitch on a ball backup catcher Tony Cruz tried to backhand, the Cardinals won in the bottom of the ninth, on a home run by rookie Kolten Wong.
And so the Cardinals emerged with a rousing, unlikely and absolutely crucial victory Sunday, beating the Giants, 5-4, and tying the NL Championship Series at one game apiece. No team ever has lost the first two games of a best-of-seven LCS at home and come back to win the series.
The next three games of the NLCS will be played in San Francisco, starting Tuesday.
The Cardinals already experienced life without Molina this season, and it was not pretty. Molina sat out seven weeks this summer because of a torn thumb ligament. Their record this season: 60-46 when he started, 30-26 when he did not.
The odds are long that he plays again this season. As the Cardinals dressed and headed for their flight to San Francisco late Sunday, Molina was undergoing tests and medical evaluation of his oblique injury.
“You just can’t play through it,” Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said. “I would like to consider myself a pretty tough guy. When I had that injury, I could hardly get out of bed.”
After Molina departed in the sixth inning, the Cardinals got solo home runs in the seventh and eighth and handed closer Trevor Rosenthal a one-run lead for the ninth.
Rosenthal gave up two singles, two walks and the tying run, scored by pinch-runner Matt Duffy from second base when Cruz could not block a 58-foot fastball.
“I was doing everything I could just to keep it in front of me,” Cruz said. “I got a glove on it. To get down and block a 99-mph fastball, that’s pretty tough.”
Rosenthal has given up seven hits and three walks in 32/3 innings this postseason, and the generally benevolent St. Louis fans booed him off the mound.
All’s well that ends well, though. As Wong prepared to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning, backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski counseled him to swing for a base hit.
Wong swung, hit a walk-off home run, then made sure to find Pierzynski.
“Good enough for you?” Wong said, jokingly and winningly.