Cards take pressure off mound with fast start
PITTSBURGH -- Manager Mike Matheny entered Monday prepared, in the aftermath of another bullpen meltdown, to alter late-inning relief roles. He left PNC Park never having to make such a call.
Ready to summon closer du jour Edward Mujica had one more Pirates baserunner reached in the ninth, Matheny instead watched Mitchell Boggs perhaps garner some sort of positive momentum with his ability to close out St. Louis' 10-6 win in front of 10,539 fans.
The Cardinals' offense had seemingly erased any suspense about how Matheny would set up his 'pen by scoring 10 times in the first three innings of a series opener. A pesky Pirates offense, though, did not lie down. Lance Lynn labored through five innings, and Pittsburgh then knocked around reliever Marc Rzepczynski to pull within four.
That was when Matheny turned to Boggs, whose struggles the day before had already pressed the Cardinals into rethinking bullpen roles. It was not about simply building up Boggs' confidence by getting him back on the mound as soon as possible. It was, as Matheny said afterward, "all about winning right there."
Boggs erased a leadoff walk with a subsequent double play. A two-out single extended the inning as Mujica continued to warm in the 'pen. If one more runner had reached, Matheny would have handed the save situation over to Mujica. As it was, Boggs struck out Russell Martin to give the Cardinals a positive start to a 10-game road stretch on Jackie Robinson Day.
"Don't begin to take anything for granted, because this team can sneak up on you, and obviously they did it [to the Reds] last night," Matheny said. "But we know they can do it. We've seen it firsthand."
The Cardinals' closer conundrum seemed irrelevant for much of the night, as St. Louis knocked Pirates starter James McDonald out of the game by the end of the second, an inning in which the Cards scored seven times with two out. An error by shortstop Clint Barmes exacerbated things, but the Cardinals were also hardly fooled by anything McDonald was offering.
With two on, Jon Jay delivered a tiebreaking two-run double. It was one of four extra-base hits the Cardinals would have in the frame. Allen Craig and Yadier Molina both contributed RBI doubles. Carlos Beltran drove in one on a single. The Cardinals sent 11 batters to the plate in the inning.
"I left the ball up and got behind guys," said McDonald, who did not allow a run in 13 innings against St. Louis last season. "Good teams and good hitters are going to hit those pitches; when you make mistakes, they are going to make you pay. I didn't keep my team in the game today, and that's what happens when you make bad pitches: You get hit hard."
McDonald is not the first pitcher the Cards have ambushed in such a way this season. Thirteen games into the season, the club has batted around in the order four times. The club has scored seven runs in an inning three times, matching its 162-game total in 2012.
"It has happened a lot for us," said Craig, who had a three-RBI night. "I think it's just a matter of taking good at-bats. I feel like we just feed off each other, and when one guy has a good at-bat and hits the ball hard, the next guy, it boosts his confidence. It goes down from there."
All this scoring in bunches has the Cardinals leading the league in runs scored (79) and ranked second with a run differential of plus-31 despite featuring only one starting position with a batting average even near .300. The oddity is explained by looking at the timing of the Cardinals' hits. After going 5-for-11 with runners in scoring position Monday, the club is now hitting .395 with runners in scoring position this season.
"I think there's a simplicity about every at-bat, taking it like it's going to be your last one," Matheny said. "They've been doing that."
In opening the offensive floodgates in the second, the Cardinals minimized the effects of running into two outs on the basepath in the first. A two-run double by Matt Holliday in the third then cushioned the Cardinals' lead.
While the Pirates never brought the potential tying run to the plate again, Lynn did not exactly shut that offense down either. Staked to a 10-1 lead, Lynn immediately gave three runs back in the bottom of the third, which featured a two-run homer by Pirates second baseman Neil Walker.
Lynn's pitch count rose to 99 by the end of the fifth, which would be his final inning of work. The issue, he said afterward, was pitch selection. Wanting to preserve the lead by getting quick outs, he turned to his fastball too often. That minimized the guessing on Pittsburgh's end.
"I have to be better," Lynn (2-0) said. "When you have a 10-run lead, you're trying to get quick outs and not have long innings. I wasn't able to do that either. I think that was the most frustrating part. You learn really quickly that there are no easy or quick outs in the big leagues. I just had the luxury of having a great offensive night behind me tonight."
Lynn had just one 1-2-3 inning Monday and dealt with multiple baserunners in each of his other four frames. Pitching in a rotation that is averaging more than six innings a start, Lynn has finished six only once in three outings.
Lynn's early exit gave Matheny the opportunity to find work for relievers Joe Kelly and Rzepczynski, neither of whom had pitched in a week. Kelly was the pitching bright spot of the night with his two scoreless innings. The game got tense under Rzepczynski's watch, as two runs scored in the eighth. He stranded another two in scoring position.