There was a time not long ago that the Cardinals weren't necessarily committed to bringing up righthander Dakota Hudson as he worked through a minor league rehabilitation option following Tommy John elbow surgery 11 months prior. Then, when they did bring him up, Hudson didn't seem, really, to figure as a starter.
On Friday night, five days from their first game in the 2021 postseason, the Cardinals had two big takeaways. One wasn't that unexpected.
Tyler O'Neill, who walloped 11 homers in September, ripped two more in his first two October at-bats. One went to right. One went to left. And then he had 34 for the season.
O'Neill doubled in his third at-bat and scored a third run on Lars Nootbaar's single. He reached on an error in his fourth at-bat and stole his 15th base. And he threw out the potential winning run at the plate from left field in the top of the ninth. He easily was the star of this one.
"It kind of felt like a video game," said Hudson. "That guy was hitting every pitch and he turns around and hoses a guy at home plate with the game on the line. You could put that on a highlight reel any time."
Hudson, making his first start since last September, acted as if he hadn't been hurt at all. The sinkerballer netted 10 of his 15 outs via the ground ball and struck out four more as he spun five scoreless innings, yielding just three singles to a rookie-laden Chicago lineup, as the Cardinals scored in the ninth to beat the Cubs 4-3 before an appreciative paid crowd of 41,618 at Busch Stadium.
A pinch single in the ninth by Edmundo Sosa, who later in the inning ripped his pants, set up Paul Goldschmidt to drive in the winning run with a two-out single for his 99th RBI of the season. Goldschmidt narrowly had missed a homer to center in his previous at-bat in the eighth.
Hudson threw what appeared to be a comfortable 70 pitches, 42 of them for strikes. "I figured maybe 80 (pitches)," said Hudson. "They're just looking out for me."
And he most certainly is in the picture as a member of the postseason club, maybe as their second or third starter.
"Here he is (as a starter), a little bit out of opportunity and necessity," said manager Mike Shildt. "It's been very timely. He's pitched very well."
"I saw myself on the roster from the time I had Tommy John. This was the goal at the end of the year," said Hudson, who gained a win in relief in his season debut last week in Chicago.
"Obviously, things had to go perfect. The big thing was just getting out there for one inning. But it felt good to get back out there for a start tonight. I've been blessed to have people who know what they're doing. I've had great trainers all the way through."
A year ago, Hudson wasn't so euphoric. "Last year, at this point, I was sitting on my couch in a cast and we were about to go play the Padres (whom the Cardinals lost to in the wild-card round)," said Hudson.
As the Cardinals won for the 19th time in 20 games and 21st in 23, which is a totally preposterous stretch, they attained something which has come to be expected — at least 90 wins.
Since the year 2000, a stretch of 21 full seasons, the Cardinals have won at least 90 games 12 times. All have resulted in postseason appearances.
Some three weeks ago, 90 wins seemed a pipedream. "Yeah, maybe," said O'Neill. "Seventeen (wins) in a row will help. We're a good ball team, for sure."
Shildt, pondering the meaning of 90, said, "That's a nice number. Let's not kid ourselves."
There was one key downer, though.
Lefthander Genesis Cabrera, though he tossed a double-play ball, also walked three of the four men he faced in the sixth and came out of the game in obvious frustration with an apparent recurrence of a nail problem on the middle finger of his left hand. That ailment usually keeps Cabrera out three or four days after an acrylic nail is applied, so he won't be seen again before Wednesday.
The Cardinals beat the Cubs for the seventh consecutive time this season and clinched the season series with their 10th victory in 17 games with just two remaining.
O'Neill's game was about as complete a game as one could have.
"The first (homer) was well-struck," said Shildt. "The second one was loud.”
"This guy's . . . clearly a five-tool player. And they were on display tonight."
But, almost the same thing happened the day before when rookie outfielder Dylan Carlson homered twice and saved two hits in the outfield with good catches.
And, in the end, there was Goldschmidt, who may have been disappointed his drive did not go out in the eighth but took advantage of another chance in the ninth-inning rally, which began with a one-one-out walk to Andrew Knizner, who moved up on Sosa's single and Tommy Edman's groundout.
"I have a lot of respect for guys who stay present," said Shildt. "And 'Goldy' is about as present as they're going to come. He's got an impressive physical skill set but he's also got an elite mindset. He's just going to continue to be ready for that next moment."
The Cardinals have been ready for that "next moment" for the past three weeks. They anticipate there will be many others.