The legendary advice from pitching coaches is “Throw strikes. Babe Ruth is dead.” (In the mid-00s I personally modified it to “Throw strikes–Ruth is dead and McGwire’s retired.”) It’s advice that, if heeded last night, might have had the Cardinals still comfortably in the playoff picture rather than hanging by their fingernails as they are today.
To set the stage, the Cubs lost and the Rockies won, so a Cardinals win would put them 3.5 behind the Cubs and keep them 1.5 ahead of the Rockies. Unfortunately, now the Cardinals are three games behind the Brewers, unable to directly catch them for the first wild-card spot, and just 1/2 game ahead of the team from Colorado. It’s not all because the Cardinal hurlers couldn’t throw strikes, but a lot of it is.
I worried about Jack Flaherty early when he allowed a home run to Ryan Braun, but that proved more singularity than harbinger. Save for that homer, Flaherty hummed through the first two innings with no problems. In the third, he ran a three-ball count to Lorenzo Cain, who singled for his second hit of the night, and Christian Yelich, who flew out. No problems in the fourth, but a couple more three-ball counts in the fifth (Mike Moustakas, who struck out, and Tyler Saladino, who popped out).
Then came the sixth.
After getting Cain relatively easily, Flaherty issued his first walk of the night to Christian Yelich, then hit Jesus Aguilar. Perhaps Flaherty had also hit a wall because he then walked Travis Shaw. Neither of the walks were borderline or anything either, but 3-1 pitches that weren’t wild, but were obviously not in the zone. Mike Shildt then went to his bullpen, which made sense. There was no good reason to keep Flaherty out there, especially has he neared 100 pitches.
Where I had issue was with the fact that Shildt chose Dakota Hudson. I get that Hudson is a ground ball guy and you might be able to get the force at home or the double play. However, Hudson’s strikeout-to-walk rate is almost 1.00 and going into this appearance he’d walked 15 in 24.2 innings. That’s a very high rate when there is no margin for error. I’m really surprised, given that we saw him later anyway, that Shildt didn’t go with Bud Norris there, a guy that was more likely to get a strikeout even if he also might have had a better chance of a sacrifice fly.
Hudson didn’t throw a strike to Braun. Not even one that you could question why the ump didn’t call it. He had Yadier Molina moving all over the place.
Now 2-1, Hudson got Moustakas to fly out to Marcell Ozuna. Aguilar came home and the Cardinals were unable to cut off the throw and tag Shaw before he touched the plate. At 3-1, things didn’t seem good at all.
This team does have a way of surprising you, however. In the bottom of the inning, Jose Martinez led off with a home run to get things going and bring a little jolt to the St. Louis side. Paul DeJong walked and then Ozuna blasted his 23rd homer of the season, taking the Cards from seemingly out to back on top in a key game. The Redbirds looked for some insurance when Harrison Bader doubled with two outs and Yairo Munoz walked, but after a game of cat-and-mouse where Tyler O’Neill was announced, the Brewers went and got Junior Guerra and made some defensive moves, and Shildt countered by using Matt Adams, on the first pitch Adams flew out and ended the threat. I imagine that Shildt was playing some numbers, but using up both of your bench power threats in a close game like that seems a bit risky.
With a one-run lead, the Cards turned to Jordan Hicks. As I’ve said a lot of times lately, Hicks doesn’t fill me with confidence, though there’s no dread when he comes in. Some nights he has it and other nights you wish he’d sacrifice a couple of mph to get the pitch actually in the zone. Last night was one of those nights. The first batter he faced, Manny Pina, ran the count full before hitting a solid fly that Jose Martinez was able to track down. (This is not the last we’ll speak of Martinez in the outfield.) He got Orlando Arcia to ground out, but then walked Curtis Granderson and Cain, both of them on 3-1 pitches that, again, were close but not close enough.
With the bases loaded and one out, Yelich (who likely will be MVP but the Cards were able to somewhat handle last night) hit a sharp grounder up the middle. Hero of the game Paul DeJong then ranged right behind second base and snagged the ball with an outstretched arm, then was able to flip it to Munoz covering second for the force. The Brewers tied the game but it could have been a lot worse and, in different situations, that could have been a play that saved the game. Hicks then got Aguilar to strike out to end that threat, a threat mainly all of his making by not throwing strikes.
Norris came in for the eighth and while he’s going to take the loss in this one, he deserved better. Norris, making his first appearance in over a week and that one the injury-shortened outing, went to a full count before striking out Shaw to start the inning. Eric Thames pinch-hit and hit the first pitch on a sinking line drive. Martinez wasn’t going to be able to catch it, it didn’t appear, but then he tried to slide to make the catch. The ball got down and past him and by time Bader was able to track it down, Thames was on third.
I was really surprised, when Martinez singled with one out in the seventh, that someone didn’t pinch-run for him. The easiest thing would have been to let Adolis Garcia run for him then take over in right, but you could have also pinch-run anyone (maybe Greg Garcia), then put the pitcher in that spot, let Munoz slide to right, and bring in Kolten Wong, who apparently was available to work like that. Leaving Martinez in the lineup makes some sense given the fact that it was a tie game but you have to balance that with the fact that leaving Martinez in the field in a tie game is a problem waiting to happen.
Norris then passed Moustakas to set up a force but that turned out to be a disaster as Norris tried to keep a check on him at first, only to see the pickoff throw hit him, allowing Thames to scamper home as it got away from Carpenter. It might not have mattered as Erik Kratz, who was up at the time, wind up hitting a little flare that dropped, but without that you don’t know if Norris is more focused and makes a better pitch. Whatever the case, the Brewers were ahead. They’d tack on another in the ninth when Cain singled and Yelich doubled–that combo is probably going to be a terrible nuisance in this series–against Mike Mayers. Five of the last Cardinals struck out and that was the ballgame.
I’m not real sure who to give the Goat to, honestly. Norris took the loss, but I don’t think that was all his fault. Pitching with a runner on first and one out would have been a lot different than a runner on third with one down. Hudson allowed the go-ahead runs in the sixth in relief of Flaherty but they didn’t wind up being the deciding factor. As much as I could go with Hicks, I think I’ll just go with Jedd Gyorko, who went 0-4 (the only starter without a hit) and struck out three times. Most of those weren’t in key spots–he only left one man on base–but Gyorko has the power to have made an impact even without runners on.
Tonight is pretty much a must-win for the Cardinals. Getting the top spot in the wild card game might be a stretch, but you can’t hope that Philadelphia will hold Colorado at bay and once you slip out of the playoffs in the last week, getting back in could be a challenge. Colorado will also be looking to at least keep pace with Los Angeles, who lost last night to Arizona with Clayton Kershaw on the mound. The Rockies are just 1.5 behind LA for the NL West crown so they aren’t likely to come out flat. Can Austin Gomber rise to the challenge? We’re going to find out.