ST. LOUIS — There for a brief moment, before rally cat came into their lives, Yadier Molina paused at the plate, stood tall, and pointed his bat toward left field, appearing as if he were calling his shot.

He wasn’t.

Something more dramatic was about to happen.

Molina was one of the first to spot the latest cute critter to run onto the Busch Stadium field and into Cardinals lore. With the bases loaded, Kansas City up by a run, and Molina ahead in the count, a dark gray kitten with lynx-like ears loped toward the infield and then darted out to center. Once the cat had taken a piece of the grounds crew member’s finger and still been corralled, the game resumed. Molina put the next pitch where he once appeared to be pointing — into the left-field seats. El Gato Slam.

The catcher’s fifth career grand slam sent the Cardinals to an 8-5 victory against the Royals and the kitten into legend.

“I’m not a cat person,” manager Mike Matheny said. “But I sure like that one.”

The rally delivered the Cardinals’ fifth consecutive victory and put them within reach of the division leaders. Coupled with the Cubs’ loss in San Francisco, the Cardinals’ win put them 1.5 games back in the National League Central, the closest they’ve been in the division race since June 13. The last time the Cardinals (58-56) were within a game of the division leader was also the last time they were two games better than .500, on May 27.

The Cardinals had been teasing, teasing, teasing a breakout inning throughout the game, though each time the inning unraveled into a familiar yarn. Three times, Molina came to the plate with a runner in scoring position before his grand slam, and he flied out twice and grounded out once. He missed on chances to bring home a tying run and an insurance run, but the Cardinals’ newly rejuvenated offense found a way to give him a fourth chance. KC reliever Brandon Maurer didn’t retire either of the two batters he faced. Greg Garcia singled, and Matt Carpenter walked. Peter Moylan entered and retired two batters, though an error allowed both Garcia and Carpenter to advance 90 feet.

The Royals opted to intentionally walk Dexter Fowler and dare Molina with the bases loaded. Molina took a slider for a ball, and then saw the cat.

“I thought it was a streaker on the field, to be honest,” Matheny said.

“You never expect animals,” Molina said. “The catcher (Cam Gallagher) told me, ‘You ever seen something like that before?’ I said, ‘Not with a cat, but with a squirrel, yes.’”

If ever Molina looks at his 2011 World Series ring he can still see the squirrel. Such a celebrated presence from the Cardinals’ 2011 championship run, the squirrel that interrupted Skip Schumaker’s at-bat in the playoffs quickly became an icon, launching T-shirts, cheers, and even a mascot for a local children’s hospital. Ownership included a silhouette of “Rally Squirrel” on the ring. So, yes, Molina has seen this before. Once the cat crossed their path, the Royals never had a chance.

Molina drove Moylan’s next pitch for his 14th homer of the season.

The cat was captured in center field by Lucas Hackmann, a member of the grounds crew. The cat appeared to bite Hackmann on the finger, and a photo of him appeared later on social media showing a bandaged finger. Hackman was taken to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for treatment and possible shots. The cat’s whereabouts were the stuff of legend. A Busch Stadium official said there were “so many different stories that I can’t even speculate.” The Cardinals did not have possession of the cat at game’s end, though they were not sure if it was left with the Humane Society of Missouri or some other group or person. Matheny said he was told by security that someone had already “claimed the cat.”

It’s not clear if the cat was just a stray, trying to find its way, and scurrying around Busch Stadium hoping for direction.

Like, you know, a metaphor.

For most of the season the Cardinals had been given life after life in the division race because of the mishaps above them in the standings. The Cardinals returned home to Busch after a road trip that saw them take control of their ability to contend. The Cardinals tied a club record by scoring at least 10 runs in three consecutive games, and that offense nourished the team’s return to .500. The Cardinals shed the meandering look they’ve had for so long, and on Wednesday showed the new bite that they have. Mike Leake’s early struggles left them down 3-0 by the middle of the second inning. They answered with four unanswered runs, including Jose Martinez’s solo homer for a lead.

When Leake allowed a two-run homer that shifted the game back to KC, the Cardinals remained on the prowl for runs, a persistence they haven’t showed much this season.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say there were times this year when we you get down three and you don’t feel real good about coming back,” Carpenter said. “You don’t feel that right now. We got down 3-0 in a hurry and I can promise you there wasn’t a guy in that dugout who not only was thinking but knew we were going to score some runs. And we did.”

Added Matheny: “You just think the next guy is going to do it because you’ve recently seen the next guy do it. It’s one of those things you keep building on.”

To nibble into the Royals’ three-run lead, the Cardinals got frisky against starter Trevor Cahill. Kolten Wong took a walk, stole second, and then scored on Leake’s safety squeeze in the second. In the third, Fowler drew a walk, stole second, and was able to score on Jedd Gyorko’s single. While Leake was allowing the Royals five runs on 11 hits in his five innings, the Cardinals were able to chase Cahill in the third.

When Fowler walked to load the bases for Molina, the Cardinals did in the game what they’re now in position to do in the division.

They pounced.

“There were too many guys in this clubhouse who weren’t performing to their career norms,” Carpenter said. “When you have that many guys underachieving individually and collectively, that’s not where we want to be. You’ve got to believe eventually that’s going to change. It looks like it’s happening all at the same time. Which has a chance to be special.”