ST. LOUIS -- Monday night’s series opener between the Cardinals and Brewers at Busch Stadium had already been circled on the schedule because of what it would mean within the landscape of a tight National League Central race.
It nearly concluded as one for the history books.
Led by starter Dakota Hudson, who silenced the Brewers’ offense over the first 6 2/3 innings of a 3-0 victory, the Cardinals made a run at the franchise’s first no-hitter since Bud Smith’s in 2001. Yasmani Grandal foiled that attempt by skipping a two-out eighth-inning double off Giovanny Gallegos just inside the right-field line for the Brewers’ lone hit of the night.
St. Louis’ consolation prize, however, was plenty palatable. With the team’s eighth win in 10 games, the Cardinals grabbed sole possession of first place in the division. They lead the Cubs by a half game and the Brewers by three.
“It’s been a tight race since Day 1,” Hudson said after the team’s third shutout in seven games. “Got to win them all.”
Hudson was brilliant en route to his team-leading 12th win, though there was never a doubt in manager Mike Shildt’s mind that the rookie right-hander would not be on the mound to finish it. Hudson’s pitch count sat at 74 through five innings and reached 92 after six. As the seventh inning unfolded, Gallegos warmed behind Hudson.
Shildt emerged from the dugout after an eight-pitch walk put Eric Thames on base with two outs. Hudson’s pitch count read 111, just one away from his career high.
“He had more than done his job,” Shildt said. “You don’t get many of those [no-hit] scenarios, and you know it’s a big accomplishment. But you also want to make sure you’re taking care of the game as well. Then you want to take care of the player. We have a lot of season left.”
Hudson was hardly surprised to see his manager taking the ball. In fact, the only thing that caught him off guard was the reaction of his teammates when he descended into the dugout.
“Guys were giving me hugs,” Hudson said. “Usually I get a handshake, so I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’”
It wasn’t until Hudson walked inside the clubhouse to begin his post-pitch routine that he heard on the television broadcast that the Cardinals were piecing together a no-hitter. Had it been completed, it would have been Hudson’s first since his days as an ace on the Sequatchie County (Tenn.) High School pitching staff.
Bigger picture, though, it was how Hudson navigated a mighty Brewers lineup that may have been the most significant takeaway on his special night. This was a team that had scored 10 runs (nine earned) over eight innings in two early-season starts against the righty. Milwaukee’s left-handed hitters had been particularly punishing, as they combined to go 13-for-26 with five homers and nine RBIs in those outings.
It was no surprise, then, to see Brewers manager Craig Counsell load Monday’s lineup with left-handed bats -- six in total. Hudson responded by allowing only two balls out of the infield, both of which were caught.
“I think he was commanding his stuff a little bit better tonight,” Brewers infielder Mike Moustakas said. “He was throwing that sinker at 94, 95 [mph] -- that was pretty dirty. And his secondary stuff was really good tonight, too.”
“This guy has made adjustments to be more in control,” added catcher Yadier Molina. “Right now, you see what he can do when he’s on. Obviously being a young guy early in the season, he was just trying to impress. But right now, you’re seeing him get comfortable pitching.”
Upon exiting, Hudson turned the ball over to Gallegos. He closed out the seventh without issue and registered two outs in the eighth following a Paul DeJong error. Grandal then pulled a 1-2 slider down the line to extend the Cardinals’ no-hit drought.
“I don’t feel really good,” a despondent Gallegos said afterward.
With the chance at history gone, the club quickly shifted its attention to more critical matters: Christian Yelich was stepping to the plate as the potential tying run.
Incoming reliever Andrew Miller discussed how he’d pitch to Yelich as Shildt gave him the ball. Then, as Shildt headed back to the dugout, he changed his mind. He pointed Yelich to first base for the intentional walk.
“He’s not chasing,” Shildt said of the MVP Award candidate, who already had eight homers and 19 RBIs in 10 games against the Cardinals. “Moustakas is a good hitter, but we didn’t want Yelich to be the guy that we allowed to take the hack at that.”
Miller, now facing a bases-loaded jam, ended it by inducing a groundout from Moustakas in the final high-leverage spot of the night. The Cardinals remain undefeated against the Brewers at home this season, improving to 4-0.