WASHINGTON -- A driving force behind their second-half surge up the National League Wild Card standings, the Cardinals' bullpen has opened September by showing its cracks. Most concerning is where those fissions are forming -- the back end, where few showed for much of the season.
The anchor of that group and one of the few whose roles wasn't revamped or discarded in the past few months, Bud Norris now sits at the center of their woes. Manager Mike Shildt would not commit to Norris as the club's closer going forward after the righty's second straight implosion led to a 4-3 loss in 10 innings to Washington at Nationals Park, their third consecutive defeat.
"It's a question I don't think I can answer right at this moment," Shildt said about the closer role. "He's had a tough couple of days. We'll keep evaluating what we have. Tomorrow he'll be down likely. And we'll go from there."
One of the NL's steadiest late-inning stoppers for much of the season, Norris has now allowed five runs in a span of 24 hours -- matching his total surrendered across all of July and August. The two he allowed on Monday came courtesy of one swing by Bryce Harper, whose two-run homer knotted the score in the ninth and handed Norris his fifth blown save. Harper won the game an inning later with a sacrifice fly off Chasen Shreve, giving Greg Holland -- whom Norris supplanted as the Cardinals' closer in April before being released and signed by Washington -- the victory.
Holland tossed two innings of scoreless relief against his former team and opposite Norris, whose second loss in as many days spoiled an afternoon in which three other Cardinals relievers put Jack Flaherty in line to beat Max Scherzer. It also came an afternoon removed from a four-pitcher, five-inning effort by St. Louis relievers that Norris followed by allowing three ninth-inning runs to the Reds. He's thrown 47 pitches and recorded four outs across those two appearances.
"I'm frustrated. I pound the strike zone, but I've walked the leadoff guys in both instances," Norris said. "I have the ambition to keep going and fighting, so I won't give up."
Monday's loss dropped the Cardinals 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers, who beat the Cubs, for the first NL Wild Card spot. They've lost three straight games for the first time since mid-July, just before they revamped the bullpen, basically reassigning everyone except Norris and Jordan Hicks.
Hicks is an option to close should they look to shake things up again, but he's far from the only one. Shildt has been hesitant to have Carlos Martinez throw multiple innings on consecutive days. Dakota Hudson has received few but high-leverage situations since his promotion. The club is also preparing for the possibility that Michael Wacha will return in a relief role.
"I want to help this team win games," said Norris, who, at age 33, is approaching his career high in appearances. "It's a hard inning to pitch when you're out there every day. But I've really embraced it, and I want to continue to do it."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Harper's late-inning dramatics changed the Labor Day narrative, which, all afternoon, had centered around Flaherty. Though he was far from his sharpest -- "I didn't have good command of anything," Flaherty said -- the 22-year-old continued his ascendant NL Rookie of the Year candidacy by clawing through five high-stress innings. He struck out five and danced around five walks, allowing only Trea Turner's solo home run in the first. That was enough to dip his ERA to 1.22 over his last six starts and leave the game with a lead opposite Scherzer, who struck out 11 over seven innings but allowed a two-run single to Paul DeJong in the first and a solo homer to Yairo Munoz in the sixth.
"I don't think it's something you really focus on," Flaherty said of facing Scherzer. "I've gone against [Aaron] Nola this year, gone against [Zack] Greinke. This is one of the situations where you need to focus on the team you're going up against."
Flaherty's five punchouts gave him 154 on the season, giving him sole possession of sixth place on the single-season rookie list. Rick Ankiel holds the all-time mark, with 194 in 2001. Flaherty's 174 strikeouts in his first 33 starts are the most for a Cardinals pitcher to begin a career.
HE SAID IT
"Two of the better sliders in baseball. It was fun to see that on display." -- Shildt, on the Flaherty-Scherzer matchup
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Nationals rallied after Harper's game-tying homer in the ninth and would have likely ended the game then had Marcell Ozuna not slid to rob Anthony Rendon of a hit. The Nationals challenged the call, which stood after a brief review. Washington then loaded the bases before Shreve struck out Matt Wieters to escape the jam.
Winners of 10 straight series just a few days ago, the Cardinals will not look to avoid their fourth consecutive loss when this series continues on Tuesday from Nationals Park. They'll turn to the steadiest member of their rotation, as Miles Mikolas takes the ball against Erick Fedde, a rookie making his first start in two months after dealing with inflammation in his shoulder. First pitch is set for 6:05 p.m. CT.