It’s Homecoming Day in St. Louis.

It’s the home-opener for the Cardinals, the first look at the rival Milwaukee Brewers, and the chance for the red faithful to walk into Busch Stadium, walk through wonderful memories and into the past, when everyone could be together to celebrate the game we love. And remember the people we love.

This is a day to greet old friends, maybe meet new friends, and mourn the loss of absent friends, like Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. It won’t be the same without them. But it is healthy to mourn, it is good to cry, because that’s what families do.

And a family of 14,500 fans will enter with happiness, because baseball is back at Busch. The family will enter with renewed hope, thinking of the days ahead when the pandemic is gone.

Finally, finally gone.

Thursday afternoon, fans will be in attendance to watch the Cardinals at home for the first time in 544 days. The last home game with fans was the second game of the 2019 NL Championship Series between the Cards and Nationals. It seems even longer than 544 days, just because our world was shaken.

And after more than a year of loss, worry, and emotional and economic damage, too many lives have been changed forever. And by walking into the ballpark today, we can savor the grander meaning of it all: a return to the quiet pleasure of an ordinary life, with our rituals restored after terrible disruption. After all that we’ve endured, the thought of having an ordinary life is actually quite extraordinary.

In St. Louis, baseball is a part of our lives. Opening Day is part of our calendar. Baseball occupies a special, almost sacred, date and time each year. And it gives us endearing and beautiful keepsakes, even if it’s just an image of Adam Wainwright throwing to Yadier Molina, or seeing Whitey Herzog hugging Ozzie Smith. It can be as simple of a sip of cold beer, or the warmth of the bun that holds your first ballpark hot dog.

And all of this will feel like home — even if this home has Clydesdales clomping all over the grass. It feels like home because it’s a gathering of people who share an allegiance to Cardinals baseball and all that comes with it. Families bicker. Families also know when it’s time to appreciate the meaningful things, the ties that bind.

We may disagree on politics. We know that our nation, like our community, is polarized on most matters. We’re divided on so many things, and after a while we don’t even understand what we’re arguing about. But all of that is put aside on Opening Day, when we reunite in the spirit of St. Louis baseball. And if there is any disagreement in this house of ours, it will be over Mike Shildt’s lineup.

Instead of pulling us in so many different directions in these restless and confrontational times, baseball gives us a chance to reconnect. And that is so powerful.

The brilliant  baseball writer Thomas Boswell wrote this in 1984, and it applies on Opening Day 2021:

“It is not that baseball is an escape from reality, it’s merely one of our many refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms,” Boswell observed. “Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by its monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket.”

We have that park. Right here, in downtown St. Louis.

Take us out to the ballgame.

It’s time to play ball.

THE REDBIRD REVIEW 

Yadier Molina Is El Jefe: The Boss. That’s what his manager Tony La Russa started calling Yadier many years ago, after watching the young catcher take charge of pitchers, pitch selection, games, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Apr 7, 2021; Miami, Florida, USA; St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Dylan Carlson (3) is greeted at the by Paul DeJong (11) Yadier Molina (4) and John Nogowski (34) after his grand slam against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning at loanDepot Park in Miami, Florida, USA; Mandatory Credit: Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

After the Cardinals were run out of Cincinnati by a combined 21-7 score in two consecutive losses, they needed a jolt. They needed to get going. They needed El Jefe to take charge. Again. And always. That’s how it’s been since he took over as the Cardinals starting catcher in 2005.

Molina’s three-game performance against the Marlins had to be right there, near the top, on a career list of his greatest regular-season series. And no, I do not think this is an overstatement. And no, I don’t have such a list. But Molina’s work in Miami was exceptional and impactful. Think about it:

  • Molina went 4 for 10 with 5 runs batted in, raising his batting average to .364. 
  • He’s driven in at least one run in five of the Cards’ first six games and had five of the team’s 13 RBIs in the Miami series. 
  • In the first game Molina ripped a two-run double to give the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. The offense didn’t have much going Monday, but Molina struck for the game’s biggest blow in a 3-1 win. 
  • Tuesday, with the game tied 2-2, Molina lofted a sacrifice fly to plate the go-ahead run. The Cardinals went on to win, 4-2. 
  • Wednesday afternoon, with the Marlins and Cardinals scoreless through six innings, Molina stepped up following a Matt Carpenter walk and unloaded a monster homer for a 2-0 lead. The Cardinals rolled on from there, 7-0. 
  • And of course, Molina commanded a pitching staff that allowed only three runs, two earned, in 27 innings of baseball. 

The Cardinals used three starting pitchers and six relievers in the series. Four of the six relievers appeared in two of the three games, as the bullpen covered 15 of the 27 innings in the series. 

Molina was a traffic cop, instructing the procession of pitchers. He was a coach and a counselor. He framed pitches, coaxed called strikes. He kept the three starters focused; Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant, and Jack Flaherty got better and sharper as the game went on. 

Molina did masterful work in guiding Gant through all kinds of chaos. The game could have blown up on Gant, who was toiling in trouble most of the way. But Gant got out of there after four innings, and the Marlins managed only one unearned run against him. 

Molina’s influence was everywhere during the three-game sweep that pushed the Cardinals’ record to 4-2. 

“That guy is our leader, he’s the guy we get behind. He carries us,” Flaherty said. “That’s our horse. That’s the guy we fall behind. He’s somebody we can go to war with each and every time out there.”

This is Molina’s 18th season with the Cardinals. Thursday he’ll be behind the plate for his 17th consecutive start in the Cards’ home opener. He’s 38 years and 269 days old. As the seasons have rolled by, Molina remains as important as ever. He is Cardinals Baseball. He is El Jefe. 

Proud Hurlers Rebound From The Cincinnati Stomp: After a barbarous opening series in The Queen City, St. Louis pitchers lugged their battered 9.72 ERA to the healing waters of Miami. 

The traveling Cardinals must have enjoyed the change of scenery — and they certainly enjoyed the change to a new opponent.  After being attacked by pit bulls (metaphorically speaking) for 27 runs in 25  innings at Cincinnati, the Cardinals went to Pitbull’s city and found peace and joy. 

The Cards gave up a mere speck of runs (two) in 27 innings. After being bashed by wild-eyed Reds hitters for 12 extra-base hits including six homers, the Cardinals ceded only three extra-base hits (doubles) in 109 plate appearances by the Marlins.

After being pierced for 30 hits by the Reds in three games, the Cardinals cut that in half (15 hits) during the stop in Miami. After being bopped for a .534 slugging percentage by the Reds, the Cardinals put the Marlins on lockdown for a .196 slug. The Marlins were 1 for 22 with runners in scoring position. 

Thanks, Rotation. That’s More Like It: Ponce de Leon, Gant and Flaherty combined to face 62 batters over 15 innings of work; only two scored. And one of the runs was unearned. A note on Flaherty: he pitched six shutout innings. He hadn’t gone six innings or more without allowing a run since his final regular-season start in 2019. Before Wednesday’s performance in Miami, Flaherty had a 5.64 ERA in 10 starts since the end of 2019. 

Watching Dylan Carlson Grow And Go Is Fun: At times the rookie outfielder looks overmatched, but he’s never overwhelmed. And there’s a difference. When watching Carlson, age 22, you just never get the feeling that he’s panicky, jumpy, or drained of confidence. 

The lad is always under control. Thinking about the next pitch, thinking about what comes next, thinking about how he’ll improve. So smart. Sure, you’d like to see him have more than three hits in his first 19 at-bats of the season.

But all three hits are homers … big homers: a three-run shot in the opening-day win at Cincinnati, a solo homer Tuesday that gave the Cardinals a safer lead (4-2) in the ninth inning at Miami, and a grand slam to put the Marlins away in his team’s 7-0 win. Carlson has 9 RBIs, tying him with Molina for the team lead.

In Carlson’s last 18 games — going back to late last season, after the Cardinals gave him a break to regroup — he has 5 homers, 4 doubles and a triple, plus 20 RBIs in only 55 at-bats. That, and a slugging percentage of .618. And don’t forget about his three playoff games against the Padres last fall: a .333 average and 1.016 OPS.

Tyler O’Neill Is Getting Himself Out: With O’Neill, it really comes down to two things: plate discipline and contact rate. After an encouraging spring training, when he demonstrated patience at the plate and hit pitches to all fields, O’Neill has gone haywire in the first six games of the season. He’s struck out 12 times in 25 at-bats. That’s a rate of 48 percent, fifth worst in the majors among 181 hitters that have at least 20 plate appearances so far.

After homering in the fourth inning of the season opener in Cincinnati, O’Neill is 2 for 22 with 11 strikeouts. And going into Thursday, O’Neill he’s struck out seven times in his last 12 plate appearances. This is an extension of what we’ve seen from O’Neill since he got his first call to the majors in 2018.

O’Neill has been overly aggressive in his first six games, making it easy for pitchers to bait him with pitches outside the strike zone.

According to FanGraphs, O’Neill has chased out of zone pitches on 50 percent of his swings, well above the overall MLB chase rate of 30%. O’Neill’s contact rate, 58.8%, isn’t close to the overall MLB rate of 74%.

Pitchers aren’t even being tricky about this; they’re pounding O’Neill with fastballs. O’Neill has struck out 9 times in 17 at-bats that ended on a four-seam fastball. And when pitchers get two strikes on O’Neill? There isn’t much hope. In 13 two-strike counts he’s struck out 12 times.

It’s early, yes. Let’s put the “it’s only six games” disclaimer in here. But this is a little different with O’Neill, simply because plate discipline and contact are his weaknesses. O’Neill is up to 475 plate appearances in the big leagues, and has a  strikeout rate of 34.7%.

Thirty Words on Matt Carpenter: He did a great job, drawing that walk before Molina blasted Wednesday’s game open with the two-run homer. Carpenter contributed to the win, and I was happy for him.

Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.