After celebrating 'little wins,' Donovan seeing results at plate

June 13th, 2024

ST. LOUIS -- Stuck in a minor June swoon that has caused his frustrations to soar at times, Cardinals super utility man has been forced to celebrate smaller moments as he continues to grind in hopes of finding his swing.

Donovan certainly found it at the right time on Thursday, hitting a belt-high 2-1 pitch from red-hot Pirates pitcher Mitch Keller for a tiebreaking home run that propelled the Cardinals to a 4-3 win and a series victory over their NL Central rivals.

Keller entered Thursday riding a personal six-game winning streak and a five-start stretch without allowing a long ball, but Donovan smashed a wayward cutter over the wall in right field in the bottom of the sixth inning for what proved to be the game-winner.

Donovan pushed his hitting streak to seven games with his first home run since May 7. Even though he hasn’t felt good about his swing in recent weeks, Donovan closed the seven-game homestand by going 9-for-26 (.346) with three RBIs to help the Cards win four times.

“You’ve got to take your little wins in this game,” said Donovan, who played left field and third base in the game and could see more time at the hot corner if superstar Nolan Arenado (bone bruise in right hand) is unable to play on Friday against the rival Cubs after DH'ing on Thursday.

“I know this is a results-based game, but sometimes, you have to just trick yourself. You have to say, ‘OK, I hit a bullet, but it was caught and that’s a win.’ If you can stack as many mini victories as possible on top of one another, the results will be there at the end of the year.”

Keller (8-4) came into Thursday having surrendered just five earned runs over his last 39 2/3 innings while compiling a six-start winning streak. During that stretch, he pitched at least six innings and allowed two or fewer runs six times, making him the first Pirate to do that since Gerrit Cole in 2015. He was trying to become the first Pirates pitcher to win seven starts in a row since A.J. Burnett won eight in a row in 2012.

That didn’t happen because of home runs by Paul Goldschmidt and Donovan. The Cardinals, who came into Thursday with the NL’s lowest margin of victory (2.53 runs), were forced to win another close game -- and they had to do so without MLB saves leader Ryan Helsley. The Cardinals improved to 10-9 in one-run games thanks to the power supplied by Goldschmidt and Donovan and 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief from their bullpen.

“That’s the thing, it’s contagious when guys start throwing the ball well and everyone wants to do it,” said Andrew Kittredge, who notched his first save of the season with Helsley being rested after pitching on Tuesday and Wednesday. “Today was a good example of that.

“I try not to treat [the ninth inning] any differently. Obviously, the ninth is a different animal than the other, but for me it’s just about trying to slow my heart rate down and treat it the same as every outing.”

After hitting leadoff or second in the order most of 2023 and predominantly at the top of the lineup earlier this season, Donovan was moved to the No. 6 spot in the order throughout this season. The Cardinals did so to try and take advantage of how well he handles the bat, especially deep in counts and with runners in scoring position.

He is among the most trusted players on the Cardinals to play any position or bat in any slot because of his calmness under pressure, manager Oliver Marmol said.

“He tries to take the same at bat regardless of where he’s hitting because he knows his game and it’s just a gritty at bat and we saw that today,” Marmol said. “He knows when to pick his spots and he got one of them.

"There’s just a calmness to him. He’s been working hard to stay through the middle. We saw several spots during the series where he’s been trying to pick his spots and he ran into one today. But when he’s good, it’s that line-drive swing and he’s sticking to gap-to-gap.”

Donovan jumped at the chance to take a big cut at Keller’s 2-1 pitch because he thought it might be the only hittable pitch he would get during the at bat.

“Keller has really good stuff and most of his stuff is breaking into you, so you want to be on time and a little more out in front,” Donovan said. “You never know [on home run balls] in this ballpark, but it snuck out. Keller’s really good and it’s huge for us to win a series going into Chicago.”