The Toughest Loss of the Year

The Daniel Poncedeleon story is outstanding.  We all know it by now, how he worked his way into being a prospect, only to be felled by a line drive to the head that required brain surgery.  He rehabbed and returned to the mound not cowed in the slightest, doing well enough to be added to the 40-man roster and promoted to the big leagues.  He didn’t pitch and was returned to Memphis, but last night he got his chance.  Nobody can say that he didn’t take it.

It’s a sentence you never expect to write, but Daniel Poncedeleon went into last night’s game with a clean slate and came out of it unblemished in the runs category, which isn’t completely strange, and the hits category, which is.  Seven no-hit innings with only three walks scuffing up the evening.  Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler both had nice catches that kept the no-hitter alive but Poncedeleon did most of the rest, striking out three and basically throwing strikes that befuddled the Reds.  Perhaps they caught a little of the “never seen this guy before” syndrome the Cardinals always contract, but it was an outstanding performance and a wonderful start to a career.  I hope his next outing, whenever that may be, he at least throws two no-hit innings to start with, so he can always say he started his career with nine hitless innings.

Unfortunately, those seven innings took 116 pitches.  Poncedeleon had gone 110, I believe, in his last Memphis start, so pushing him any farther was out of the question.  It’s amazing that he was able to shoulder that sort of workload in back-to-back games (I know, I know, the old-timers in the audience are scoffing, but it’s a different game and era now).  That meant he had to turn his precious no-hitter, shutout, and fragile win over to the bullpen.  Yeah, the Cardinal bullpen that you wouldn’t trust with the backup of the backup of the backup of your data.

The reason that it was such an agonizing decision was that the Cardinals, which we thought might have found something offensively, went into the best ballpark to hit in the National League and quit doing it.  A lot of that should be credited to Luis Castillo, but you’d think even by accident you’d score two or three runs.  The Cardinals were held scoreless until the sixth inning, when Matt Carpenter led off with a double and Yadier Molina swapped places with him.  That’s to the good, but the rest of the inning could have gone differently.  Paul DeJong flew out to Billy Hamilton, but Molina got caught in the wrong spot and was unable to advance to third.  I didn’t see this part, but given the way Hamilton catches everything, especially when a Cardinal hits it, getting too far off of second wasn’t a wise move, and it hurt when Ozuna flew out next on what should have been a sacrifice fly.  Obviously, things might have played out differently if Molina had been on third, but that was a missed opportunity that everyone seemed to know would eventually haunt the Cards.

You also had the top of the seventh, when Tommy Pham led off with a drive that nobody in the outfield could get and was standing on third with nobody out.  That is, until the replay got involved.  After it was determined that Pham had been tagged as he slid off the base, there was one out and nobody on.  If he is safe (or if this was the pre-replay era), you have to figure Fowler (who grounded out, a play that could have brought Pham home) or Greg Garcia would have brought him home.  Though, if not, that would have ended Poncedeleon’s night sooner since he was due up fourth in that inning.

However, we were at the part of the relay where Poncedeleon handed the baton off to the bullpen.  The good thing was that there were only two innings to cover and there are two pitchers out there that everyone generally trusts: Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris.  With those two in line, the no-hitter was at least a possibility.

That lasted two batters.  Hicks retired Adam Duvall on a popout, but Phillip Ervin (who the Cards saw in April but was in the minors last weekend) pinch-hit and singled up the middle.  Hicks almost stabbed at the ball, pulled his glove back, then regretted that he did so.  I’m not sure he could have knocked it down anyway.  He got the next two batters, so he only kinda scuffed up what Poncedeleon had handed him.  The shutout and the win, which given that the score was 1-0 pretty much were one and the same, were still intact.

That didn’t survive the next transfer.  Norris almost blew it with his first batter, as Scooter Gennett pinch-hit and hit a long drive that went foul before Norris came back to strike him out.  He got Joey Votto to line out after seven pitches.  All he needed was one more out.

The fact that he never got it is the reason Bud Norris is our Goat for the evening.  For all the offensive issues, if Norris gets that last out everything works, Poncedeleon has more wins than hits allowed, and everyone breathes easy for another day.  Instead, Norris threw a 1-0 fastball that caught too much of the heart of the plate and Eugenio Suarez put it into the left-field seats.

That was bad enough.  It’s tied at 1 now, but if Norris can get another out they can go to extra innings and hopefully at least pull out a win, even if it won’t be charged to Poncedeleon.  Instead, Norris completely melts down.  Back-to-back singles followed the home run, then Duvall walked to load the bases.  With plenty of opportunities to get outs if the ball is hit to someone, instead Dilson Herrera singles up the middle.  Only one run scored because only one run needed to–if this inning had played out the same with a 2-0 lead, they still would have lost.

It’s funny about perspective. We’re talking about another bullpen collapse.  Reds fans are talking about an epic come-from-behind win that shows their grit and determination.  I’d rather be on their side of the discussion.

Our friend Bob Netherton wondered aloud on Twitter whether last night was the night Hicks became the closer.  I disagreed with him, but there is one possible way he’s right.  First, let’s look at the two pitchers over the last few weeks.  Let’s just take the July numbers, make it easiest.

Pitcher IP ER K BB ERA K/9
Norris 5.1 3 6 2 5.06 10.33
Hicks 10.0 7 9 2 6.30 8.10

I will say there shouldn’t be that much disparity in the innings they have thrown, given the state of the bullpen, but that’s a different story.  Hicks’s numbers are skewed by that four run outing, but Norris are skewed by last night.  Hicks has also allowed four of the five inherited runners he’s had in July to score (Norris has not had any inherited runners in July). Norris hadn’t blown a save since June 8, also in Cincinnati.  He’s got a total of three blown saves on the year.  It was a bad night, not a changing of the guard.

Unless…..

Unless this loss, which dropped the Cardinals to .500 and requires them to win the next two to break even on the road trip, is the catalyst for a sell.  You could make the argument that Norris, even though his value might have taken a bit of a hit last night, is one of the few pieces on this team that a contender might want.  It’s possible also that, given his role in one of those stories that seemed to spell the end for Mike Matheny, the club wouldn’t be that willing to bring him back next year, especially since he’ll probably want a lot more than he got from them this season.  I appreciate that Norris seems to love St. Louis and wants to return to it, but I also think a closer on this team, especially when they have Hicks in waiting, might be a luxury that’s not needed and if you can get something for him, you make that move.

Could John Mozeliak or Michael Girsch do something like that in the next day or so, moving Hicks to the ninth?  I definitely wouldn’t rule it out.  If they are both on the roster, though, Norris will be the closer.

Poncedeleon’s reward for seven no-hit innings may be a ticket back to Memphis as the Cardinals need to make a roster move to get Austin Gomber up here for today’s game.  That said, waiving one of those ineffective bullpen arms to make way for him would be an interesting statement, wouldn’t it?  Keep that in mind, Mo.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9667.589 -
Cubs9568.5831.0
Cardinals8874.5437.5
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Last updated: 10/01/2018

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