Pardon the squirrel, Cardinals stay alive in NLDS

ST. LOUIS – Last anyone in the concourse saw, the squirrel had scurried under the nacho bar behind Section 150 and disappeared. It was a rascally little one. Had the temerity to run across home plate during the National League Division Series, spook the bejesus out of Skip Schumaker(notes), invite the wrath of dead-eye shot Charlie Manuel, inspire a Twitter account with thousands of followers and write itself into St. Louis Cardinals lore during their season-saving 5-3 victory Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The only thing missing was a water-skiing encore.

Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt talks with home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez after a squirrel ran across home plate during a pitch.
(Getty Images)

The 47,071 who stuffed Busch Stadium for Game 4 of the NLDS were happy to savor the win, thank you very much, with hometown boy David Freese(notes) driving in four runs and Albert Pujols(notes) making a play that only Albert Pujols makes and Jon Jay(notes) sliding to catch the final out. This could have been Pujols’ final game in a Cardinals uniform, manager Tony La Russa’s last hurrah after 16 seasons, the sour cherry on top of a year with tempered expectation and thrilling overachievement.

Instead, it was just another night with the feistiest squirrel since Rocky palled around with Bullwinkle. In the fifth inning, with the Cardinals ahead 3-2, Schumaker faced a 1-1 count against Phillies starter Roy Oswalt(notes). As catcher Carlos Ruiz(notes) squeezed a 94-mph fastball, a little critter rocketed past Schumaker’s right foot. Oswalt pointed, then lifted his hands. Schumaker’s peripheral vision caught something moving.

“I didn’t know what the hell it was,” he said. “… I’m trying to figure out what the reason is for God putting a squirrel right there. We’ll figure out the reason later.”

Divine squirrelvention? Not exactly. A squirrel, in fact, had graced the outfield with its presence during Game 3. The same one? Unlikely. Not only are there seven species of squirrel in Missouri, reports surfaced of a second squirrel tromping throughout the grandstand, where the first one went after its foray into the field of play.

TBS cameras caught the squirrel’s ascent through the stands, from the field to Section 156, Row 20, Seat 1. There, a woman named Barbara Vuch met the most famous mammal in St. Louis – for a moment, at least, until its flight overwhelmed its fight.

“We saw it out there and were like, ‘That’s awesome,’ ” she said. “When it ran across my feet, it was not quite as awesome.”

Actually, it was still pretty awesome. Home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez warned Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson(notes) not to throw a pitch if he saw the squirrel again. Manuel, the Phillies’ manager, fantasized about what he might have done if he saw the little critter off the field: “Being from the South and being a squirrel hunter,” he said, “if I had a gun there, might have did something. I’m a pretty good shot.”

Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman(notes) even gave the proper ammo specs for squirrel-gettin’: “If you’re shooting a .22, that’s pretty tough. If you’re shooting a .410 with #4 shot, it’s not that difficult.”

Berkman laughed that Oswalt, his former longtime Houston Astros teammate and avowed country boy from Weir, Miss., “wasn’t the least bit bothered by it. Where he’s from, that’s par for the course.” In the middle of the playoffs, with the tension rising and the Phillies trying to prove themselves Philadelphia’s real Dream Team, it was anything but normal.

Though if it was going to happen to any team, it assuredly would be the Cardinals. La Russa, after all, runs the Animal Rescue Foundation. And utilityman Allen Craig(notes) owns a pet tortoise named Torty. And outfielder Matt Holliday(notes) suffered the unfortunate entry of a moth into his ear canal earlier this season.

[Rewind: Matt Holliday leaves game after bug invades ear]

“I’m the animal whisperer,” Holliday said. “I think that squirrel was there to see me.”

Whoever it was there to see, it bore witness to a fantastic game. After five pitches, the Phillies held a 2-0 lead thanks to a Jimmy Rollins(notes) double, Chase Utley(notes) triple and Hunter Pence(notes) single. St. Louis tried not to panic. The Cardinals had trailed Atlanta by nine games for the wild card at the beginning of September. They lost starter Adam Wainwright(notes) at the beginning of the season to Tommy John surgery, missed Pujols to a broken arm, rarely had a healthy Holliday and watched general manager John Mozeliak make a widely panned deadline deal that sent Colby Rasmus(notes) to Toronto for a cache of pitchers, including Jackson and two more who appeared Wednesday, Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel(notes).

“You almost feel like you start out,” Berkman said, “and the team gets boiled down to an iron hardness where we’ve been there so many times, everyone knows who can do what and you go out there and compete. There’s nothing extra. There’s no fluff. It’s all been boiled down to the essence of team baseball.

A squirrel runs toward home plate with Skip Schumaker batting in the fifth inning of Wednesday's NLDS Game 4 at Busch Stadium.
(AP)

“When you have that, you can’t quantify it. I can’t tell you how it happens. But I’ve been in several situations, and you recognize it and, consequently, like tonight, you get down 2-0 in the first inning and nobody is the least bit concerned.”

It helped that Jackson settled down. And that Oswalt’s Hyde side appeared. The sixth inning didn’t hurt, either, one great player one-upping another.

Utley led off with a walk, and when Pence grounded a 3-2 pitch to shortstop, he tried to stretch toward third base. Pujols’ Spidey Sense went off, and instead of fielding Rafael Furcal’s(notes) throw at first base, he stepped into the throw and fired a perfect relay to Freese, who tagged out Utley. Instead of having the tying runner on third with one out and fly-ball-heavy Ryan Howard(notes) at the plate, there was one out and a runner on first. The Phillies didn’t score, Freese bombed a 425-foot home run to dead center in the bottom of the inning and Jason Motte(notes) came on to earn his second save of the series.

While the talk in the clubhouse centered on Pujols’ savvy, everyone outside was toasting the Cardinals’ newest mascot. A Twitter feed for the Busch Squirrel quickly gained thousands of followers. (Sample tweet: “SURPRISE!!!!”) Schumaker relished his place in Cardinals lore. And Vuch, the fan who came foot to clawed foot with the little creature, embraced the wee thing that spooked her.

“I am down with squirrels,” she said.

As was everyone else. The animals ran wild at Busch Stadium – and the birds, too.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 6, 2011