Happ solid but sabotaged by bullpen, D

August 5th, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- For all intents and purposes, this was more or less how the Cardinals drew it up: Get five to six solid innings from , turn a lead over to the bullpen and let the back-end arms -- which haven’t had a bevy of chances since the start of June -- do the rest.

That’s the kind of start St. Louis got from Happ in his organizational debut on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium. It was set up for success, only for bullpen leakage -- paired with clumsy outfielding -- to sink the Cardinals to a 7-4 loss to the Braves, their second consecutive defeat to Atlanta as they trudged further into a make-or-break August.

This time, it dropped St. Louis back under .500 as the Cardinals continued their teeter-totter of a second half. They fell 11 games behind the National League Central-leading Brewers (who won on Wednesday) and stayed 7 1/2 back of the Padres, owners of the second Wild Card spot.

“I think we all know where we're at in the standings. I mean, there's no hiding that,” said Nolan Arenado, who gave Happ an early lead with a first-inning three-run homer. “But I wouldn’t say that we’re going into every day feeling pressure that, ‘Oh no, we're going to lose this thing.’ At the end of the day, we are where we are right now, and there's an opportunity. It's up to us to chase that opportunity or take advantage of it, and obviously tonight wasn't the night.

“But we have a lot of games left. I know I keep saying that, but they definitely are running out.”

The night appeared to be primed for the positive until the sixth and eighth innings, when Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos -- both rock-steady of late -- were bitten by the Braves. Helsley had to accept that his 98.6 mph fastball at the top of the zone was hammered by Adam Duvall for a two-run shot. Gallegos had to watch a bumbling play in the outfield between Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader serve as the final blow to a frame he set up for struggle, loading the bases with one out in the eighth.

Carlson broke in on a ball off Joc Pederson’s bat, had it squeeze out of his glove and collided with Bader as both tried to collect the loose ball.

"I don't know what the catch probability was, but it couldn't have been very high,” said manager Mike Shildt. “... [Carlson] tried to make a play. I thought it was great. I loved the aggressiveness of it."

But the loss was little fault of Happ, who scattered five hits across as many innings of two-run ball. He pitched himself in and out of jams to leave in line for the win, a marked improvement from Jon Lester’s rough debut on Tuesday, until the blueprint fell apart.

“We get guys to start to be able to go at least through five and navigate and give us a chance,” Shildt said. “He did more than that, left with a lead, made a lot of good pitches on the ground.”

The Cardinals will take starts like Wednesday's from Happ with open arms, after the left-hander was acquired from the Twins at the Trade Deadline with a 6.77 ERA and an MLB-leading 74 earned runs allowed.

The 38-year-old, now with his eighth big league club, has been tabbed with an innings-eater moniker alongside Lester. Whereas Lester struggled to get through his five innings, Happ did so with more ease -- and probably had another left in the tank after being pulled at 85 pitches.

“That’s something I want to provide, is innings,” Happ said. “I think if a couple of those counts are different, maybe I get ahead just a little bit better, I think in a situation where I have a little bit more left. … I'm pitching until they take the ball from me.”

Happ’s night was a welcome sight, early positive returns on a Trade Deadline deal that saw two younger players go to Minnesota in order to bring him south. What’ll be even more welcome is when those returns morph into wins.

"We have to start winning ballgames, winning series,” Arenado said. “We have a chance of avoiding a sweep tomorrow and we have to find a way to do it, because we can't be losing series the rest of the way through like this, because we’re going to fall out."