ST. LOUIS -- The bar had been set unfairly high by Daniel Poncedeleon, whose encore performance against the Reds on Saturday had to follow one in which he held them hitless over seven innings in his Major League debut.
Poncedeleon managed to extend that stretch another 3 1/3 innings, but when it ended, momentum crashed with it. Once Jose Peraza broke the ice with a double, an outburst began. Six consecutive Cincinnati batters reached to chase Poncedeleon from the game and build a lead that the Reds would turn into a 4-0 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
The loss paused the Cardinals' pursuit of completing a franchise-record 11th straight series victory, but Milwaukee lost, giving St. Louis a half-game advantage over the Brewers in the top Wild Card slot. The NL West crop (D-backs, Dodgers, Rockies) are all within 2 1/2 games of a Wild Card spot.
Plugged back into the rotation after a brief return to Triple-A, Poncedeleon retired the first 10 batters he faced on 43 pitches. His arm slot then suddenly abandoned him.
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"So I was getting more lateral run, which equals more barrels," Poncedeleon said. "My ball loses its life and starts to have the fade to it. That just doesn't equal good stuff."
He threw 30 more pitches, not one of which netted him an out. A two-run double by Eugenio Suarez was the back-breaker, and a single from Phillip Ervin drew manager Mike Shildt from the dugout.
"He's just done a heck of a job against us twice, and finally we got some hits," Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "You play in the division so much, and your hitters see those pitchers constantly, and finally, it took us 10, maybe to the 11th inning that we've seen him to get a hit, but we strung a few together."
In less than two months on the job, Shildt has shown no hesitancy in deploying his bullpen aggressively. He'll likely be even more prone to do so with expanded rosters and a handful of starters-turned-relievers at his disposal. Saturday foreshadowed how that could look over the next month.
This time, the baton went to Tyson Ross, who, pitching on five days' rest, wiggled out of the bases-loaded mess he inherited with a double play. Ross went on to cover four more innings, throwing 57 pitches and holding the Reds to one run.
"It's an adjustment for everyone, as roles have been fluidly changing throughout the year and throughout this last month," said Ross, who joined the team as a waiver claim in August. "We're all just embracing whatever the opportunity is, and pick up each other. It's kind of like being a fireman. As soon as that bell rings, be ready."
Ross' extended outing prevented the Cardinals from depleting their bullpen ahead of Sunday's rubber game. It also offered the offense time to muster a comeback, though Reds starter Luis Castillo made that a moot point.
In one of the best starts of his career, Castillo struck out a career-high 11 over 6 2/3 innings. Matt Carpenter's leadoff single represented the team's only hit off Castillo until Ross singled in the sixth.
"He would have had anybody's number tonight," Shildt said of Castillo. "That's a tip of the cap right there. He had really nasty stuff, and he was able to repeat it, locate it, work off the same locations with different pitches. That was a quality outing by that young man. Nice job, Castillo."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
The Cardinals generated little offensive momentum, though they did stir in the eighth after chasing Castillo from the game. A pair of two-out walks brought up three-hole hitter Jose Martinez to face Reds closer, Raisel Iglesias. Martinez whiffed as he lunged for a 2-2 slider to strike out for the third time on the night.
Carpenter -- who is in the NL Most Valuable Player Award conversation -- has reached base safely in 15 of his last 28 plate appearances, spanning six games. During that stretch, he's tallied five extra-base hits and drawn five walks.
HE SAID IT
"Clearly we'd like to have them in the lineup. We'd like to have them here. But the reality is, they're not. When you spend energy worrying about what you don't have instead of appreciating and working with what you do have, what we have is enough. I think we've proven that." -- Shildt, on trying to jumpstart an offense missing three of its everyday players
The Cardinals will look to keep their run of winning series alive on Sunday when they face the Reds in a 1:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium. It will be the final matchup between these two division rivals this season. Outfielder Marcell Ozuna is expected back in the lineup for the first time since Aug. 21, and Luke Weaver will slide in for a spot start, his first since Aug. 16. Weaver will be opposed be Reds righty Anthony DeSclafani.