ST. LOUIS -- A pitching staff that’s being tested during the Cardinals’ dense stretch of games in their revised schedule was tested by the Indians’ offense Friday night.
Cleveland set the tone early and continued to pile on in St. Louis’ 14-2 loss in the series opener at Busch Stadium, as Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. Cardinals starter Daniel Ponce de Leon did not make it out of the first inning after allowing four runs on an RBI single by Francisco Lindor and a three-run home run from Franmil Reyes. Ponce de Leon recorded his second out one batter after Reyes’ homer, but he then walked two in a row to end his night.
Jake Woodford got the Cards out of the inning, but the Indians continued their attack. Leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez had an at-bat in four of the first five innings, and Cleveland hit three home runs in the game.
After replacing an injured Miles Mikolas in the rotation at the beginning of the season, Ponce de Leon (0-3) has continually struggled to control counts and get quick outs. That has led to high pitch counts and short starts. But in his first two starts, he had a combined 15 strikeouts over seven innings. Strikes were there; the consistency was not.
That trend has shifted. In the Cardinals’ win over the Reds on Sunday, Ponce de Leon threw 93 pitches, registering only six swings and misses, according to Statcast. On Friday, over 41 pitches, Ponce de Leon registered only one swing and miss -- the fewest in any game in which he induced at least 10 swings (26 prior games).
“[Cleveland] is a group where they walk a lot and they’re looking to do damage at the plate,” said manager Mike Shildt, who was the only person from the Cardinals to talk after the game. “It’s an offense that’s clearly very capable and designed to do what they did. Not give into guys that are going to dance around the zone and lock into an area when guys do get in the zone.
“When you face that offense, you have to work ahead, you have to control counts, you have to make quality pitches in the strike zone because that’s where you gotta get your outs.”
Ponce de Leon threw more balls (24) than strikes (17), and he put the pitching staff in a precarious spot. Woodford got the Cardinals through 3 1/3 innings, allowing a two-run homer after the Cards turned a wacky 3-2-8 double play in the second inning. Right-hander Junior Fernández allowed six runs on six hits and two walks in his first appearance since returning from the COVID-19 injured list. It wasn’t until the ninth inning when position player Max Schrock took the mound for a 1-2-3 inning that Cleveland eased off.
With the extended innings for the relievers, the Cardinals will likely make at least one addition to the bullpen for a fresh arm before Saturday’s afternoon game.
The past two years have seen Ponce de Leon shuttled between Triple-A Memphis, the Cardinals' rotation and the Cards' bullpen. After earning a spot on the postseason roster and making one appearance last year, Ponce de Leon spent five days at Driveline Baseball’s training facility in hopes of using technology to allow him to be a fixture on the big league pitching staff.
With a refined delivery and a new grip on his changeup, Ponce de Leon opened the season ready to step in the rotation if needed. Now, the Cardinals will likely re-evaluate that spot.
“I’m sure we’ll look at it,” Shildt said when asked about Ponce de Leon’s spot in the rotation the next time through. “It’s just about being more consistent. I don't think there’s any major revelation that needs to take place.”
St. Louis could continue to lean on Ponce de Leon and hope consistency follows. His elevated fastball, plunging curveball and effective cutter have played at this level before. Woodford is another option. The rookie had allowed one run in seven innings (three appearances) before Friday. Rookie Johan Oviedo could also take over. The Cardinals’ No. 13 prospect tossed five innings in Game 2 of Thursday’s doubleheader against the Pirates, following his strong MLB debut against the Cubs last week.
With seven doubleheaders in September, the Cardinals have considered a six-man rotation, and Carlos Martínez (COVID-19 injured list) will be pivotal to that when he returns.
The Cardinals will likely need all of the above as they navigate the next month of the schedule and continue their challenge of playing 53 games in 44 days. Arms will be precious as the Cards press on. What role those arms are in remains to be seen.