Tyler O’Neal gets back in the groove as the Cardinals lose to the Cubs

CHICAGO — The Cardinals lost one of their most frustrating games of the season to the Cubs when outfielder Tyler O’Neal was unable to advance beyond third base due to a series of bizarre events on Friday. There was, however, a moment when O’Neal took a second to look around, marvel at the sun-drenched day at Wrigley Field, get lost in the noise of the raucous crowd and gain some valuable perspective.

Why, just two and a half months ago, the muscular O’Neal had such severe back pain that he couldn’t hold his 5-month-old daughter, Audrey, in his tattered arms. Around the same time, O’Neill was often awakened in the middle of the night with such severe back pain that it repeatedly sent numbing screws into his leg.

Fast forward to Friday, and O’Neal was on base for the fifth time in his first two games since May 4. The Cardinals lost a heartbreaking 4-3 to the Cubs, but that pain was nothing compared to what O’Neal suffered two months earlier.

“Everyday life was very hard, but I’m a mill and I wanted to get through it,” O’Neal said, referring to the back pain that eventually landed him on the 60-day injured list on May 5.

“I tried to operate on it in May and got a second opinion in June, and I’m happy with how the process went and how I feel now. That’s the most important.”

After a night of hitting base on a triple in the Cardinals’ 7-2 win on Thursday, O’Neal singled and scored the team’s first home run on Friday. In the eighth with the Cardinals trailing by one, O’Neal drew a lead, moved to second on Jordan Walker’s walk and then used his speed to pass on third. However, he would frustratingly stay there when Alec Burleson kicked into the double play after calling two hits that Statcast metrics showed were out of the plate.

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“I was doing everything in my power not to do what I’m doing [the umpire] said Burleson, who was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. “A couple of months ago, I might get overly anxious and swing around on those pitches, but I was doing everything I could to stay in the zone.”

The loss ended the Cardinals’ season-best six-game winning streak, and halted a run in which they had won eight of their previous nine games. All four Cubs runs came in the fourth off Jack Flaherty on extra base hits—homers by rookie Miles Mastroponi and Cody Bellinger and an RBI double by Mike Taushman. Flaherty not only came away with four straight home runs, but he only allowed one home run in his previous 65 1/3 innings before hitting the third on Friday.

“I mean, I’m one step closer to getting out of there,” said Flaherty, who hit six targets. “[Bellinger] Put a good swing on it. Hats off to you [Bellinger]. “

The Cardinals are taking a swing at O’Neal after the way he worked to overcome an injury that threatened to derail a second straight season. The 28-year-old O’Neal hit 34 home runs and drove in 80 runs in 2021, but his 22-season has been plagued mostly by a shoulder injury and hamstring injuries. After working all season to improve the condition of his body, O’Neal was the Opening Day starter in center field.

After returning to left field—where he won the Gold Gloves in 2020 and 21—and more struggling at the plate, O’Neal developed a sore back. He stopped and started a rehab plan three times before eventually traveling to Southern California to see back specialist Dr. Robert Watkins, who gave him an epidural, cortisone injections, and prescribed rest. Finally, O’Neal got the relief he sought, and was allowed to return to the Cardinals.

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Coincidentally, Friday marked the sixth anniversary of O’Neal being traded from the Mariners to the Cardinals, a franchise he hopes to hold onto for the long haul despite persistent rumors that he may be dealt before the August 1 trade deadline.

“The Cardinals have something great here and I’m familiar with those guys – not only my teammates, but also the staff,” said O’Neal, who reiterated his desire to remain a Cardinal. Speaking of the big league, [the Cardinals] She is all I know. I love it here and we’ll see what happens.”

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