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BenFred: Cardinals back up big talk about lineup with dynamic display in season-opening win

BenFred: Cardinals back up big talk about lineup with dynamic display in season-opening win

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Cardinals face Reds in Cincinnati on opening day

St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado (28) gets his first hit as a Cardinal, a single to second base, during the first inning of an opening day Major League Baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Pitcher Jack Flaherty leads the Cardinals into their first game of the season. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

CINCINNATI — In a ballpark where no lead is safe, and in support of a starter who was not razor sharp, an under-the-microscope lineup rounded up all of their question marks and straightened them out into exclamation points.

Runs, glorious runs.

The first six of the Cardinals’ 2021 season will get much of the attention, and that’s understandable, considering the uniqueness in which they arrived.

But the first-frame ambush wasn’t the big story here Thursday, just as the successful Cardinals debut of Nolan Arenado and the encouraging first showing by an unproven outfield, if singled out, turn into individual storylines that fall short of capturing a bigger statement made.

An offense Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently and accurately described as “stalled” in the recent past turned its first chance to prove this season will be different into a dynamic display of damage done.

Fast start. Home runs. Hustle. Sharp baserunning. Beating the shift. Turning walks in to runs. You name it, the Cardinals did it.

It’s just one game, I know. And there are some qualifiers that should be mentioned. We’ll get to them. But when a lineup that has been poked and prodded and questioned and, yes, lampooned for seasons, plural, powers the way to an 11-6 win in game one of 162, it’s hard to be anything other than impressed.

Not since 2010 had a team scored six or more runs in an opening day’s first inning.

The Cardinals did it here Thursday, piling on poor Reds starter Luis Castillo faster than the snow flurries — yes, it snowed — dusted Cincinnati area windshields.

Cold opener. Blistering start.

The first inning showed all the ways the Cardinals, when clicking, can score. Goldschmidt’s ground-rule double lit the fuse. Consecutive singles by Arenado and cleanup hitter Paul DeJong followed. Tyler O’Neill stood firm and wore a pitch that earned him a base. Yadier Molina’s voodoo for finding ways to turn runners in scoring position into runs on the scoreboard turned what could have been an easy groundout into a throwing error that allowed a run to score. And then Dylan Carlson went boom, blasting the first 96 mph sinker he saw from Castillo over the right-field fence. The Cardinals were up 6-0, and they were not done. Good thing, too, because the game would have later been tied if they had been.

Arenado singled in Goldschmidt in the one-run second inning. Goldschmidt singled in Flaherty to kick start a fourth inning that saw Tommy Edman score on a wild pitch before O’Neill cleared the bases with a blast to left field.

Baseball fans outside of St. Louis might not know the name Tommy Edman, but the starting second baseman and leadoff hitter is a critical player for the Cardinals in 2021. And he's the most known of a group that is under-the-radar but hugely important for the club. In this edition of Inside Pitch, Post-Dispatch sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon prepare you for opening day by introducing you to the X-factors.

Altogether the Cardinals went six-for-12 with runners in scoring position, worked as many walks (three) as they left men stranded and struck out only seven times. And none of those strikeouts arrived until the fourth inning. Each of the lineup’s first five hitters had at least one hit. Goldschmidt and Arenado combined to go six-for-10. O’Neill and Carlson, the secured starters in a young and uncertain outfield, combined to produce five RBIs.

“Unbelievable today,” said a grateful Flaherty in his first start that counted since a lackluster offense stranded him in a wild-card series loss to the Padres.

“To put up six, and then continue to add on, is awesome. Sometimes you have that big inning and it’s like, all right, that’s good. To continue to add on? Awesome. Good to see.”

Let’s not overlook the fact it very well could have been three Cardinals homers instead of two. Goldschmidt’s first-inning ground-rule double sure looked like it landed on the home-run side of the line that is supposed to draw a distinction between the end of the wall and the start of the visitors’ bullpen. No one, including Goldschmidt, had a good reason as to why the review that occurred on the field sent him back to second base. He still became the first Cardinal to have four hits in a season opener since some guy named Albert Pujols did it in 2010. Is anyone else starting to think Goldschmidt’s division-leading on-base plus slugging percentage from last season is going to soar even higher now that he’s got Arenado hitting behind him? Arenado alone won’t be the answer if his teammates don’t rise to the occasion. They did Thursday. As Flaherty said, good to see.

One game doesn’t declare a lineup cured. The Great American Ballpark is an incubator of offense. Castillo was not sharp. The defense that played behind him was horrendous, and it could be worse now that starting Reds center field Nick Senzel injured himself diving for a line drive smoked by Arenado. That was a cruel bit of irony. The Reds’ lone web gem did more damage than good. It’s safe to say Cincinnati’s defense is worse than it hoped. It’s fair to wonder if this Cardinals offense is better than we feared.

Those worries were not unfounded. We still need to see more. The Cardinals dragged the lowest regular-season slugging percentage of any playoff team into the bracket in each of the past two postseasons. Between the 2019 season opener and the beginning of this one they had lost 68 percent of the games in which they allowed four or more runs. They’re 1-0 in that category in 2021. It’s a start. A good one.

“You saw our ability to do things tonight,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We did it in a lot of different ways. That’s the way good offenses operate. We did damage, and we expect to score more than four quite a bit.”

Ben Frederickson

@Ben_Fred on Twitter

bfrederickson@post-dispatch.com

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