WASHINGTON -- Hours before the Cardinals' six-run lead shrunk to one on Wednesday night, manager Mike Shildt met with Bud Norris deep within Nationals Park. It was determined that Norris could be available if necessary for the series finale against Washington, despite his heavy workload and struggles in recent days. Then a game the Cardinals seemed to have in hand turned into one where they might need Norris.
Instead, it was Carlos Martinez who was summoned to secure not just the last three outs, but the final six of St. Louis' 7-6 win over the Nationals. That selection spoke to the shift in how Shildt views the late innings at this point in the season. What was largely a two-man job for much of the year -- Jordan Hicks in the eighth and Norris in the ninth -- is now a revolving door.
"Who's fresh?" Shildt said. "Who has the best matchup, based on situation? That's what you'll see."
For weeks, Shildt has spoken of the benefits of operating with a "fluid" bullpen alignment in the middle innings, a luxury made more practical by expanded rosters in September. This week, Shildt narrowed that focus to the late innings after two meltdowns put Norris' role up in the air.
Shildt did not close the door on Norris, whose 28 saves rank fifth in the National League, seeing more save opportunities moving forward. But he made it clear that Hicks, who closed out Tuesday's win, also will. Martinez emphatically kept his name in the conversation on Wednesday by wiggling out of jams in the eighth and ninth innings, as his fastball flirted with triple digits on the radar gun.
"I am preparing to be focused every time they need me, in every situation," Martinez said. "I have a new role, and whatever situation they want to put me in, I'll be ready."
The first two-inning save of Martinez's career earned the Cardinals a hard-fought series win and put them in a position to gain ground in the NL's crowded Wild Card race. They now trail the Brewers by a half-game for the top spot.
"Now, Carlos will be down for a couple of days, so here we go Jordan, here we go Bud, here we go Dominic Leone," Shildt said. "You want straightforward answers that I just can't give you. I wish I could tell you, but it's a flexibility thing. The good news is every guy in that bullpen embraces that."
Shildt would have certainly preferred to not worry about his club's relief corps on Wednesday, especially after Matt Adams' two early home runs and six stingy innings from winning pitcher Miles Mikolas appeared to have pushed all the bullpen chatter into the periphery.
But that became impossible when the Nationals scored four runs against Mikolas and Dakota Hudson in the seventh. Shildt had to motion for Martinez an inning early. At that point, Cardinals relievers had allowed 10 earned runs over their last 9 1/3 innings. Martinez then used four strikeouts -- including one of Bryce Harper to end the eighth -- to seal the win. He owns a 1.08 ERA across seven appearances since being cast in a relief role.
"That," Shildt said, "was a big-time pickup by Carlos."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Adams breaks out: It was with some new lumber and a mechanical adjustment in mind that Adams broke out of a severe slump, notching his first multi-homer game back with St. Louis. The added benefit was that it came against the Nationals, who allowed St. Louis to claim Adams off waivers in August. Adams' three-run shot off Tanner Roark opened the scoring in the first inning, and he sent a solo shot to the second deck in right field in the fifth.
The home runs marked the first extra-base hits since returning to the Cardinals for Adams, who hit .130 (3-for-23) in his first 10 games with the club following the waiver claim. He had been 3-for-44 (.068) dating back to Aug. 5.
"Very encouraging," Shildt said. "He's been close with how his swings looked. Today, he got some results from it." More >
FROM THE TRAINER'S ROOM
Concern came over the Cardinals in the eighth inning, when Yadier Molina left the game due to left hamstring tightness. Molina got up slowly after sliding into second base on an unsuccessful stolen-base attempt. St. Louis considers the injury to be minor.
• Yadi exits with 'minor' hamstring tightness
FLASH THE LEATHER
A night after badly bruising his ankle on a foul ball, Harrison Bader was back patrolling center field on Wednesday, and it didn't take him long to turn in another impressive defensive play. This one came on a ball Bader didn't catch.
Already off his feet after diving for Anthony Rendon's single in the first inning, Bader realized he'd trapped the ball quickly enough to rise and fire home, where Harper was attempting to score from second base. The one-hop throw easily beat the Nats star, who appeared to slow down on his way to third base.
In the fifth inning, Yairo Munoz potentially saved another run by diving to corral a Harper hotshot that appeared earmarked for right field with runners at first and second base with one out. Munoz spun to record the force at second, allowing Mikolas to work out of the jam a batter later.
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Nationals needed a review to secure their first run off Mikolas, after Victor Robles was initially ruled out at home following an Adam Eaton double in the fifth. The Cardinals executed a perfect relay from right-center, from Bader to Munoz to Molina, to make the play close in the first place. But umpires convened for a minute and 20 seconds before overturning home-plate CB Bucknor's original call. The replay showed Robles' left hand snuck in just before Molina's tag.
The Cardinals also challenged an important play at home, this one in the seventh, when Wilmer Difo's single off Hudson scored Ryan Zimmerman to cut St. Louis' lead to one after Zimmerman delivered a three-run double. Replay confirmed Bucknor's call that Zimmerman slipped his hand in ahead of Molina's tag. The play was only as close as it was because Bader unleashed a 99.2-mph throw, as tracked by Statcast™, on the fly to Molina at home.
Austin Gomber (5-0, 2.77 ERA) will look to remain unbeaten for St. Louis, as the rookie lines up against fellow left-hander Daniel Norris (0-3, 5.49). The opener of the three-game series is set to start at 6:10 p.m. CT on Friday at Comerica Park. Gomber has a 1.55 ERA over his last five starts, spanning 29 innings.