As the Cardinals continue to steer their roster through a stretch of eight games in five days, Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field showed the potential effects of the situation.
In the fifth inning of what was a one-run game, St. Louis stuck with rookie right-hander Seth Elledge to face left-handed-hitting Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs’ cleanup hitter.
It helped preserve other relievers for Wednesday’s doubleheader, but it did not save Tuesday’s game. Schwarber pounced on a full-count fastball for a two-run homer that gave the Cubs needed insurance runs in their eventual victory.
After a doubleheader on Monday and with another twin bill looming Wednesday, the Cardinals tasked five pitchers to get 24 outs Tuesday night. It took them 207 pitches to do it.
“At that point, you’re in the fifth inning, you know you’re down and you want to stay away from guys that are down, and you also know you have three guys left,” manager Mike Shildt said. “So, yeah, we’re trying to extend and get the most we can out of Elly. His stuff was still pretty good, and he made a mistake to Schwarber. That’s part of the situation we’re in.”
The Cardinals (5-6) are walking a line of trying to win games and making sure they have enough pitching depth for this grueling stretch. After using 10 pitchers in Monday’s doubleheader split, that depth was thin heading into Tuesday. The Cardinals had 11 pitchers in their bullpen, but many of them hadn’t been pitching for close to three weeks before this week after a COVID-19 outbreak paused the Cardinals’ season.
“We’re getting our legs under us, but having guys go back-to-back or multiple innings is not something we prefer to do right now, for a lot of reasons,” Shildt said. “Those guys who gutted it up today gave us an opportunity for tomorrow. We’re in a lot better shape for tomorrow to be able to go at it.”
Here’s another wrinkle added to the Cardinals’ situation: Starters are building arm strength on the job. They saw it Sunday when Dakota Hudson exited after four innings and 55 pitches. On Monday, starter Daniel Ponce de Leon (0-2) struck out seven and allowed two runs, but he was pushed to the brink of -- if not over -- his pitch count, with 79 pitches.
It got the Cardinals through 3 1/3 innings.
“I just need to find a way to get quicker outs,” Ponce de Leon said. “I get so deep in every single count. Swing and misses early, foul balls late.”
For the fourth consecutive day, the Cardinals made roster moves to get as many fresh pitchers as they could in the bullpen. On Tuesday, they added Jesus Cruz to the 40-man, and hours later, he was making his Major League debut. He and Ryan Meisinger, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in his Cardinals debut on Tuesday, were added to the Cardinals’ player pool on Aug. 6, quickly got in a few side sessions at the alternate training site in Springfield, Mo., and were added to the taxi squad on Saturday.
“Next thing you know, you’re pitching in Wrigley,” Shildt said. “I have a lot of respect for those guys and how they gutted it up.”
Cruz was welcomed with a two-out, bases-loaded situation in the sixth inning and struck out Schwarber swinging on a changeup. As Cruz’s pitch count grew in the seventh inning, the Cubs took advantage and knocked in two more runs.
Nabil Crismatt, a day removed from making his Major League debut, became the first Cardinals reliever to pitch on back-to-back days when he was tasked with getting the final four outs of the game. He kept the Cardinals in the game by not letting the Cubs’ lead grow. Down by five entering the eighth, the Cardinals loaded the bases, scored two and brought the tying run to the plate before the late rally ended.
“I appreciate very, very much what Elledge and Meisinger and Cruz and Crismatt gave us,” Shildt said. “Candidly, we didn’t want to extend them as much as we had to, and we didn’t get egregious with it, we didn’t get too far down the line, but you could tell those guys were competing, and all of them competed well. Their gas tank was running empty, and they gave us everything they had.”