CLEVELAND -- It sort of feels like this Cardinals season is down to two strikes and two outs. Between the pitching injuries and the Brewers’ midseason surge, the National League Central race has not gone to their liking, and neither has an NL Wild Card race dominated by the three behemoths in the NL West.
But if you’re looking for a glimmer of hope in what has been a frustrating 2021, a tenacious two-strike, two-out approach in Tuesday night’s 4-2 win over Cleveland at Progressive Field provided it. The Cards were victorious for the seventh time in 10 games and got back above .500 (51-50) because of the continued hot hitting of Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader, because of the ageless Adam Wainwright, and because they extended innings and at-bats.
All four of the Cards’ runs came with two outs, and homers from DeJong and Bader came with two strikes.
“A lot of situational hitting is mentality,” manager Mike Shildt said. “Two strikes is a mentality.”
It can be mentally taxing to put up the kind of numbers DeJong was dealing with in the first half. As of the All-Star break, he had a disappointing .185/.286/.385 slash line, and his struggles with two strikes -- an .098 average and a 48% strikeout rate -- were particularly pronounced.
But in the second half -- and, really, dating to June 25 -- DeJong has turned his season around. He entered Tuesday with a .309/.397/.559 slash line in his previous 78 plate appearances.
And when the Cardinals needed a late-inning lift in this one, DeJong came through -- with two strikes, no less. He came to bat against Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw with a runner aboard, two outs and St. Louis trailing, 2-1, in the seventh inning. One frame earlier, the Cards had squandered a bases-loaded opportunity, and the start of the seventh was marred by Tommy Edman unsuccessfully trying to turn a leadoff double into a triple.
Thanks to Matt Carpenter’s two-out single, the Cards still had life. And DeJong seized it, blasting a go-ahead two-run homer onto the left-field home run porch off a hanging two-strike slider from Shaw.
“When you see more pitches throughout the at-bat, you start to get more comfortable with the release point, the timing, what [the pitcher] is doing, what he's got,” DeJong said. “With two strikes, you kind of simplify your body and you're able to just react.”
DeJong’s clutch homer ensured Wainwright would not be saddled with a loss he did not deserve. Staked to an early 1-0 lead by Bader’s two-strike, two-out solo shot off an otherwise effective Cal Quantrill in the third (a homer that continued Bader’s Herculean second half), Wainwright made only one mistake in his first career appearance at Progressive Field. That mistake was a two-run homer to José Ramírez in the fourth that put the Cards in a 2-1 hole.
Nevertheless, seven strong innings and eight strikeouts from Wainwright kept St. Louis in the game. And then it was just a matter of DeJong and Co. not giving in.
Wainwright said he knows well the demoralizing effect a strong two-strike and/or two-out approach can have on an opposing pitcher.
“It can really hurt a pitcher's mojo out there on the mound,” he said, “and it can really ignite a lineup at the same time.”
After DeJong ignited the Cardinals with his seventh-inning homer, they added insurance in a ninth inning against reliever Phil Maton, sparked by -- what else? -- a two-out double from Bader. Maton then walked José Rondón and DeJong to load the bases. And though Dylan Carlson’s ensuing walk was the only RBI that did not come with two strikes, that was only because Maton didn’t throw any. A scoreless eighth from Giovanny Gallegos and a perfect ninth from Alex Reyes ensured those late runs held up.
For a team with its back against the wall in the second half, Tuesday’s win was a good example of what can happen when a strong two-strike mentality kicks in.
“If you're comfortable and you know you can hit with two strikes and you are going to compete well with two strikes,” said Shildt, “then you can be a little more selective on when to get your A-swing off earlier in the count.”