Big moment eludes Cards, then 'pen falters
The crop of 24,282 at Busch Stadium was begging for a moment. With the Cubs back in town, they didn’t need much reason to rise to their feet. A dazzling play from Nolan Arenado to end the top of the sixth set the stage for a rally a half-inning later, putting the most fitting character -- Yadier Molina -- at the dish with the bases loaded.
Primed to erupt, with “Yadi!” chants already bellowing, the largest crowd at a baseball game in St. Louis in nearly 19 months instead saw one of far too many opportunities fall by the wayside on Friday night. The Cubs homered on the first pitch of the game, rode Kyle Hendricks and his immaculate career numbers at Busch Stadium for 6 2/3 innings and captured the first game this season between these two rivals, 12-3, the clubs’ first meeting in St. Louis in 600 days.
Players like Arenado, Edmundo Sosa and Dylan Carlson were getting their first tastes of what the rivalry can provide when it’s back in force -- “It's like a dream come true,” Sosa said. All three provided moments -- Carlson’s RBI single in the seventh to bring the Cards within one, Arenado’s superb double play in the sixth and Sosa’s 3-for-4 night. They were moments Busch Stadium rose for. They were moments just far too few.
Final hope for a truly marquee memory on a ceremonial night was squandered in the eighth, as a trio of Cards relievers -- Kodi Whitley, Tyler Webb and Seth Elledge -- saw eight runs score on their watch, turning a one-run game into a nine-run deficit.
“We're down a run and we have to be able to pitch other guys to hold it there,” said manager Mike Shildt. “We can't go to the same guys every night that we chase games. We can’t just use the same three or four guys. We need to be able to get contributions and outs from other people to hold it down, or to hold it close.”
The Cardinals find themselves at a crossroads. Their back end of the bullpen has been staunch, with their three highest-leverage arms -- Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos and Génesis Cabrera -- owning ERAs of 2.13 or lower. But at the precipice of a 17-day stretch with no off-days, and with each of the trio near the top of MLB in innings pitched among relievers, there needs to be contributions from the remainder of the bullpen.
“I can't pitch them every night,” Shildt said.
After those three, though, not one reliever owns an ERA under 5.00. Many ballooned on Friday.
Most concerning is Webb, who entered after Whitley failed to record an out, then recorded just one himself against three batters. With Andrew Miller on the injured list, Webb is the only lefty in the bullpen besides Cabrera. One of the Cardinals’ steadier hands over the last three seasons, Webb has allowed a baserunner in each of his last 11 outings and has conceded an earned run in five of seven outings in May, bringing his season ERA to 12.41 ERA and WHIP to 2.35.
The Cardinals recognize the struggles of Webb and others in the relief corps. But without an alternative course of action on the roster, the club is attempting to try and return them to form.
“Teams that have a bullpen with guys who can come in and keep games close when you're down typically are really good teams,” Shildt said. “We've been that, by the way. Webby’s been that guy for us. He for sure has -- he’s at least capable of being that guy for us. So I want to make sure that's clear. They've done it, because we've had some good teams.”
Confidence on Friday can be taken from the fact that the Cardinals had a close deficit to hold to begin with. That’s because of Carlos Martínez, who, despite an uneven outing back off the injured list -- conceding a long ball on his first pitch (a cutter), retired 11 consecutive and then loading the bases on one walk and two hit batters -- turned in a quality start.
“I was trying to throw my cutter in [so leadoff hitter Joc Pederson] can’t make a swing,” Martínez said. “But that cutter wasn’t very good.”
It was a pitch that set an ominous tone for the night. Or at the very least, it set the stage for some sort of heroics, like Arenado’s game-winning homer in the eighth inning of the home opener.
The largest Busch Stadium crowd of the season waited for such a moment to come through. And now, the Cardinals faithful wait one more day.