Cards start fast, up division lead over Brewers
Two-run first sets tone; defense makes several run-saving plays
MILWAUKEE -- Michael Wacha's return from an 11-week absence only added to the buildup surrounding the Cardinals' arrival at Miller Park, where they were to meet the Brewers in a four-game series that could significantly tilt the balance of power in the National League Central.
And with Thursday night's 3-2 victory behind a series of seven pitchers, the aid of the outfield defense and a splash of early offense, the Cardinals further asserted their supremacy in a division race where they've turned a 1 1/2-game deficit into a four-game cushion in the span of a week.
Having buried the Pirates with a sweep to start this week, the Cardinals are now trying to do the same to the Brewers, losers of nine in a row. Conversely, St. Louis has won six straight, a season-best winning streak for a club that spent the first five months laboring to string wins together.
They're also doing it with drama, this one, in particular, seeming to leave manager Mike Matheny drained after his pitchers stranded nine runners over the final four innings to preserve a one-run lead. It was the club's 47th one-run game of the year, of which they've won 27.
"It was a run-of-the-mill game for us," Matheny said, tongue-in-cheek. "When do we not have games like this? It's not our goal, believe me."
Yet, it's working. Since Aug. 14, the Cardinals have had 13 games decided by two or fewer runs. They've won 11 of them.
"Obviously, we're playing good baseball right now and hopefully we can continue to do so," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We're taking nothing for granted."
While relievers were bailing each other out of jams inning after inning, defensive plays by center fielder Peter Bourjos and right fielder Jon Jay saved the game. Jay robbed Khris Davis of game-tying RBI hits in the first and sixth, first with a diving catch, then with a running grab at the wall. Bourjos later sprinted into the wall to steal a run-scoring extra-base hit away from Logan Schafer with two on in the eighth.
"I thought that ball was gone," Matheny said of Schafer's drive to straightaway center. "Just an incredible catch."
"I've robbed some home runs that I was pretty excited about," Bourjos said, "but I think that's the biggest [catch of my career] because of the situation of the year and the situation of the game."
Just before that catch, Bourjos had alertly backed up second to prevent an errant throw from allowing a runner to move to third.
"Obviously, he's one of the best center fielders in the game, and being one myself, I've taken many of those away," Schafer said. "It was a little surprising he got there."
Wacha pitched well enough in the start, his first since a stress reaction in his right shoulder paused his season after a June 17 outing. He passed a 3-1 lead over to Marco Gonzales in the fourth, having allowed a run to the Brewers in a 17-pitch first that ended with Jay's first defensive gem.
With his outing designed to last no more than 60 pitches, Wacha finished three innings and was removed with a pitch count of 50. He struck out three and allowed as many hits.
"I was very happy with it," Wacha said. "It was great getting back out there on the mound and into a game. I was able to throw strikes and command pretty much all my pitches. We ended up getting a big win here."
The Cardinals built up a quick lead for Wacha, knocking Brewers starter Wily Peralta around for four first-inning singles to produce two runs. Yadier Molina drove both in. Third-base coach Jose Oquendo aggressively waved Jay home from second on Molina's hit, a gamble that paid off when Davis delivered a weak throw from left.
"There are going to be times when it gets us, but we have to be aggressive there," Matheny said. "It puts the pressure on them to make a great play."
After the Brewers answered with a run in the bottom half of the frame, Kolten Wong pushed the Cardinals' lead back to two with a two-out single in the third.
The club would need every bit of that lead as the game was turned over to the bullpen, which Matheny aggressively used to cover the final six innings. Gonzales, as scripted, followed Wacha and had a string of six straight outs interrupted by pinch-hitter Rickie Weeks, who took him deep to start the sixth.
"One mistake tonight," Gonzales said. "Other than that, I thought I did pretty well. I think I made some good progress and hopefully I'll keep learning and keep getting better."
Gonzales faced two more batters, the latter of whom reached with an infield single, before Matheny turned to Jason Motte. Jay's running catch and then Seth Maness bailed Motte out of a bases-loaded spot to end the inning. Carlos Martinez returned the favor to Maness in the seventh, stranding Maness' two runners by getting All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy to pop out. Pat Neshek maneuvered around two baserunners with a lift from Bourjos.
Trevor Rosenthal walked two but notched his 42nd save to close out the win. The Brewers finished 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
"We had all kinds of messes out there,' Matheny said. "We had guys picking each other up all night."