Cards muscle past Pirates in late innings

April 4th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- For the second game in a row, the Cardinals were slow to start, but they battled their way to extra innings and found key runs there -- both times ending in wild fashion -- to leave PNC Park victorious.

On Wednesday night, in a 5-4 win, Miles Mikolas allowed his fourth homer in two starts -- one of five extra-base hits he allowed on the night -- as the Cardinals fell in a 3-0 hole through five innings. But two late homers from Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader kept them alive, before Kolten Wong’s loud triple set up Tyler O’Neill’s clutch RBI single in the 10th.

And in a way only fitting for a two-game series as wonky as this one, the Cardinals padded their lead when Bader dashed home on a wild pitch by Francisco Liriano.

The outcome sent the Cardinals home with a 3-3 record as they fly to St. Louis for their home opener at Busch Stadium. With four games decided by a run and another decided by just two, the Cards’ first road trip has proven just how tight the National League Central could turn out to be this season.

Here are a few takeaways from the six-game trip away from St. Louis.

Strikeouts vs. balls in play

It’s no secret that the Brewers have some fearsome arms, even without Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress in the early going. Josh Hader, the reigning NL Reliever of the Year Award winner, threw an immaculate inning against the Cardinals on Saturday with only fastballs. Corbin Burnes used a wicked slider in his 12-strikeout effort on Sunday.

Therefore, putting balls in play was a big message ahead of the road set in Pittsburgh. Though Jameson Taillon cruised through seven innings on 85 pitches on Wednesday, he was only able to strike out five Cardinals batters. So while manager Mike Shildt said his team may have fallen behind in the count against Taillon, the cuts were aggressive and taken on better pitches.

“We want our hitters to get good pitches to hit,” he said. “And if they get good pitches to hit and swing at it, we feel like that’s a win. We were able to do that for the most part tonight."

Rotation questions, bullpen solutions

Mikolas’ up-and-down five-inning start didn’t quite resolve any doubts about the Cardinals’ rotation. The group has posted a 6.28 ERA over the first six games of the season, while the bullpen has started to pick up the slack to help back the late offensive rallies.

The relief core allowed just two runs over 11 innings against the Pirates to end the road trip. Just as importantly, some arms that raised concerns bounced back well in big situations. For instance, Andrew Miller had allowed three hits, two walks and two hit-by-pitches in his first three appearances of the year, all vs. the Brewers. But he settled in on Wednesday night and retired both batters he faced in a tie ballgame, including an inning-ending strikeout of JB Shuck.

Nothing is ever perfect, though. Alex Reyes, seeking his first save since Aug. 19, 2016, was tagged for a hit and two walks and only retired a single batter in the 10th inning on Wednesday. But as has been the way with the Cardinals in Pittsburgh, someone was there to lift him up. In this case, it was Dakota Hudson, who worked out of bases-loaded trouble to earn his first Major League save.

Wong looks for real

Paul Goldschmidt took over the early Cardinals headlines with a three-homer game on Friday in Milwaukee, but Wong has been the steady bat. He’s 10-for-21 with three homers, a triple and a double -- good for an astounding 1.589 OPS headed back to St. Louis.

Sure, it’s a small sample size, and it would be crazy to argue it’s sustainable. But if you consider the early success this year as a carryover from the second half of last season, when Wong notched an .823 OPS, then it’s hard to argue against things looking up for the second baseman.

...And the power is there across the board

The two homers the Cardinals swatted on Wednesday brought their total count up to 12, which stood as fifth best in the Majors as of Wednesday night. They’re also tied for fourth in baseball in extra-base hits (22).

Big drives aren’t everything, but when a team is averaging two home runs per game and has found a way to feel out hard contact late in games -- especially ones in which they struggle to find consistent contact in the early innings -- there’s reason to keep holding on to hope in the late innings.