ST. LOUIS – Yadier Molina looked all around home plate and couldn’t find the ball as pinch-hitter Matt Szczur ran to first base after whiffing on Brett Cecil’s curveball in the dirt for strike three. Hands on his hips, the Gold Glove catcher couldn’t help smiling after realizing it somehow got stuck in his chest protector.
Welcome back to the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, where late-game crazy happens. As the young Cubs shredded their “Lovable Loser” label and grew up into World Series champs, they became a relentless team that pounced on the smallest mistakes and capitalized on the random bounces. In some ways, it mirrored The Cardinal Way and how momentum could keep building and building at Busch Stadium.
It all came crashing down on the Cardinals in the seventh inning on a brisk, sunny Thursday afternoon, Szczur reaching base on that hidden-ball trick, ex-Cardinal Jon Jay drawing a walk and Kyle Schwarber doing the damage that turned him into a Mr. October before his first full season in The Show.
Schwarber launched a first-pitch fastball that traveled 404 feet and stayed just inside the right-field foul pole for the go-ahead, three-run homer. Amid a raucous celebration inside the visiting clubhouse after a 6-4 win, Schwarber heard someone yell out: “You made it past Game 3!”
“And then we all went crazy,” Schwarber said.
Schwarber got carted off Chase Field during Game 3 last year with what was supposed to be a season-ending injury. Major surgery on his left knee that reconstructed his ACL and repaired his LCL didn’t stop him from hitting .412 with a .971 OPS in the World Series, cementing his legendary status around the Cubs.
This time, Schwarber flicked his bat and admired the flight of the ball after jumping Cecil, the lefty reliever the Cardinals handed a four-year, $30.5 million contract after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010. The early returns on the Schwarber leadoff experiment: 3-for-10 with a .500 on-base percentage and a season-opening series win in St. Louis.
“There are a lot of lineups that are probably bunting right there with their leadoff guy in that situation where he goes deep,” said pitcher John Lackey, who batted eighth and lasted six innings after a three-run first. “But our guy’s trying to hit it in the seats.”
What makes a ball stick to a chest protector like that?
“You’d have to ask somebody else,” said Lackey, who played with Molina for a season-and-a-half in St. Louis. “I wouldn’t know anything about sticky stuff.”
Molina called it a “dumb question,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when asked if he put something on his catching gear.
“I didn’t know if they came out with Velcro on the protector or it’s just like a fuzzy baseball,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not sure what happened. It was definitely Velcro-d to his chest. And it helped us, yes.”
Schwarber – an emergency catcher who might have to wear a brace on his left leg for the rest of his career – offered this theory: “Catchers like to put pine tar on their leg guard for extra stick to throw the ball to second base, things like that, get feeling. So maybe it might rub off some if he overloads and it just stuck? You never know.”
“Probably Tuf-Skin, sticky spray, something like that, maybe pine tar,” said Jason Heyward, who played with Molina on a 100-win St. Louis team in 2015. “Never seen that happen. We joked about it next time I came to the plate. We had a saying when I was over there – ‘Never seen it’ – that definitely came into effect.
“You think you’ve seen it all – and then baseball shows you that you haven’t seen it all.”
That’s the beauty of this game, the helter-skelter moments in this rivalry and the intensity and unpredictability with a talent like Schwarber. On Opening Night, Schwarber had a horseshoe hanging down from his locker, a memento from the Clydesdale he hit in the butt during a batting-practice show in spring training.
By the time Schwarber showered and changed into jeans, a gray hoodie and cowboy boots, the horseshoe had been packed into his bag for Milwaukee. Even the uber-talented, supremely confident Cubs will take all the luck they can get, because the rest of Major League Baseball is coming for them now.
“I turned around the horseshoe, too,” Schwarber said. “I turned it up so I could make it through.”