Cards get to Ohtani, but bullpen falters in 9th

May 4th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- If ever a singular performance could have possibly shaken the Cardinals from the doldrums that have gripped them while off to the worst start in the franchise’s past 50 years, it just might have been the one authored against Angels superstar pitcher Shohei Ohtani over Wednesday’s first eight innings.

Then, however, a disastrous top of the ninth happened and all the good vibes from earlier in the night morphed into one of their most devastating gut-punch losses in a season where they continue to pile up at an alarming rate.

Up a run after hammering Ohtani for four earned runs and four extra-base hits and seemingly poised to snap a four-game skid, the Cardinals could only look on in horror as Los Angeles sluggers Jake Lamb and Mike Trout touched up reliever Giovanny Gallegos for ninth-inning homers as the Angels rallied for a 6-4 win at Busch Stadium.

A crowd of 42,148 booed loudly when Gallegos -- the Cardinals' most consistent reliever heading into Wednesday -- surrendered four hits, three earned runs and two home runs to squander what would have been the squad’s finest all-around victory of the season. Instead, the Cardinals are now faced with trying to pick up the pieces after losing a fifth straight game and for the 10th time in the past 12.

“I’d be lying if I say this is not frustrating, but we’ve been tested quite a bit, and this fits right in,” said manager Oliver Marmol, who made the decision to pull closer Ryan Helsley after throwing just 10 pitches over a two-inning stretch and turn to Gallegos. “I don’t worry about our team’s ability to bounce back from it. We’ve been tested quite a bit. This fits right into that bucket of being tested even more and now we’ll find out what we’re made of.”

Marmol’s decision to pull Helsley and turn to Gallegos – a sound one based on Helsley’s lack of history of pitching three innings and Gallegos recent success -- backfired badly. Helsley relieved in the seventh when Jordan Hicks couldn’t finish off the inning, and he retired four straight hitters while using just 10 pitches – nine of which were strikes.

However, asking Helsley to pitch a third inning after sitting twice was something Marmol wasn’t comfortable doing. The ending resulted in the Cardinals blowing their sixth save in 10 opportunities.

“That [seventh inning] is where the game could flip and you bring in Helsley and he does his job and punches [Hunter Renfroe] out and then goes and gets the next inning,” Marmol recalled. “It’s easy to sit here and say, ‘Why not send him back out?’ That’s easy after you see what happens. [Gallegos] had been punching out the world -- lefties and righties -- so you tell me what the problem is with Gio finishing that game.”

The poor finish ruined an otherwise stellar effort from Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas and from a lineup that got home runs from Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carlson and doubles from Nolan Arenado and Willson Contreras. Ohtani came into Wednesday as the owner of more extra-base hits as a batter (12) than he had allowed as a pitcher (11), while also holding the opposition to an MLB-low .102 batting average. Cardinals hitters whiffed 13 times in five innings against the two-way superstar, but they did damage when connecting and put the team in position to get a much-needed victory.

“We did a good job of hitting his mistakes and looking for good pitches to hit and did what we needed to do to knock him out of the game and try to get to the bullpen,” said Gorman, who snapped out of a three-for-24 skid with his seventh homer. “I was just looking for something middle because [Ohtani] has really good pitches. Our plan was to just get him in the middle of the zone and then hit his mistakes.”

Mikolas, who limited the Angels to three runs over 5 2/3 innings, welcomed the showdown against Ohtani -- a player he never faced which pitching professionally in Japan for three seasons from 2015-17. Mikolas left with the lead following Carlson’s two-run homer -- his first of the season -- but in the end, the Cardinals were saddled with another galling loss.

“That’s a tough loss, but that’s baseball and you have to ride the roller coaster because it’s a long season,” Mikolas said. “If we’re in that position again, I’d put [Gallegos] right back out there. He’s our guy and sometimes things don’t go your way and sometimes they do. That’s a tough one for us, but that’s baseball and that’s life.”