Matz steps up with depleted 'pen in LA

Lefty keeps Dodgers at bay, but Cardinals can't earn series split

April 1st, 2024

LOS ANGELES -- Asked what he hoped to see in a game where three key members of his bullpen were unavailable, two were on the injured list and relief was still en route to Dodger Stadium at the start, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol smiled as he uttered a playful chant.

“Let’s go, Matz!” Marmol said.

Marmol and the Cardinals got their wish on Sunday when pitched his finest game with the birds on the bat across his chest, limiting the Dodgers to five hits and two earned runs over 5 1/3 innings. However, that work from Matz went to waste when the shorthanded bullpen collapsed under the weight of the Dodgers’ lineup thunder in a crushing 5-4 defeat.

Playing without Giovanny Gallegos, Matthew Liberatore or JoJo Romero because of usage in previous nights, the Cardinals lost when -- who was summoned from Triple-A Memphis earlier on Sunday -- surrendered a two-run, go-ahead homer to Max Muncy in the eighth inning.

“Steven did a really nice job, gave us what we needed and tried to go as deep as possible knowing that we were short in the ‘pen and he gave us a shot,” Marmol said of Matz, who was on an 80-pitch limit. “We knew we’d have to be perfect to get to the ninth. At some point you’re going to have matchups you don’t love based on being short in the ‘pen.”

The Cardinals had to love what they saw out of Matz, who could be a key cog in a refurbished rotation. Beset by several injuries in his first two seasons with the Cards, the club went into Spring Training with the goal of keeping Matz strong and healthy. The club purposefully brought him along slowly and he looked confident on Sunday against the Dodgers' MVP trio of Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman.

Over the course of his outing, Matz whiffed Ohtani twice in the early going, and used his newly crafted changeup to get Betts to ground into a forceout in the third inning and to hit into a double play to end a threat in the fifth inning. Of His 81 pitches, Matz threw 29 changeups. In addition to that pitch producing 16 swings and seven whiffs, Matz induced two double-play grounders with the offspeed pitch.

“I don’t know what Mookie was thinking there [on the ground-ball double play to end the fifth inning], but I felt like he saw three [changeups] in a row and he might think it was coming again,” said Matz, who fooled Betts with an 82.8 mph changeup. “To have that good location on it was important for me. Even when they are expecting it, to have it down, it’s still a tough pitch to put in the air.”

Knowing how thin the Cardinals were in the bullpen was in the back of Matz’s mind, he said, and it drove him to work deep into the game. One pitch he wishes he had back was an elevated changeup that Ohtani hit 115 mph into right field for a double to open the sixth inning. That hit, combined with Teoscar Hernández’s subsequent RBI double, jump-started a Dodgers rally that saw them get two in the sixth and three in the eighth for the victory.

“Early in the season, it’s tough when starters aren’t stretched out as long and I’m really kicking myself over that changeup that I threw to Ohtani that he hit for a double,” said Matz, who walked two and struck out three. “Looking back on it, I felt like that was the wrong pitch at that point. That would have helped me get through the sixth and it really would have changed the game.”

When Matz couldn’t finish the sixth, the Cards turned to to get two outs. , who warmed up three times on Saturday without getting in, breezed through the seventh on 12 pitches, but informed coaches he had three hitters left in him in the eighth. After Hernández homered, Marmol went to King, who had hurriedly traveled from Triple-A Memphis to Los Angeles earlier in the day after Riley O’Brien was put on the 15-day injured list.

Marmol said after the game that closer Ryan Helsley was available for the ninth inning if the Cards had the lead. That never came when Muncy hit a flat slider from King 420 feet into the right-field seats to prevent the Cards from earning a 2-2 series split.

“If you want [relievers] for the remainder of the year, you’d better be careful early,” Marmol said of his reluctance to ask so much of his bullpen. “You’re already pushing it with Pallante after last night. That was a perfect spot [for Pallante] against Muncy. But it’s not even April yet and we’re not going to push them to more than we agreed to.”