ST. LOUIS -- It was lined up perfectly. Johan Oviedo was cruising -- in line for his first big league win -- the Cardinals were bashing Cubs pitching and the lead was cushy enough to let the lower-leverage relievers close out the game, giving the back-end arms a restful win to watch.
St. Louis, after all, was undefeated (38-0) this season when leading after eight innings.
Then a third strike ruled a wild pitch got past Yadier Molina and allowed the leadoff man in the ninth to reach. Then an infield single -- with a throwing error attached -- allowed the next to do the same. Then Alex Reyes blew the first save of his career, and the pillars of a second consecutive victory over the Cubs came tumbling down -- hard.
That was the reality the Cardinals learned quickly on Tuesday evening, watching a five-run lead in the ninth inning dissipate by the time the Cubs finished off a 7-6 defeat for the home team at Busch Stadium. A win would have been St. Louis’ fourth consecutive, its fifth in its last six tries, to propel the club back above .500 for the first time in over a month.
A win after taking a lead into the ninth has become almost predetermined.
Much of that has been because of who they turned to in a jam. Reyes, entering with no outs and the bases loaded in the ninth, walked two with the bases loaded around a strikeout and then allowed a pair of hits. Reyes, who pitched in the All-Star Game exactly a week prior, lost his streak of consecutive saves to open his career, which, at 24, was an MLB record.
“Alex has been great,” manager Mike Shildt said of his highly touted 24-year-old, who owns the highest walk rate (19.4 percent) among qualified relievers. “The walks caught up tonight.”
Shildt had initially turned to free-agent signee Luis García with a five-run lead, citing that he cannot manage Reyes and Giovanny Gallegos’ workload appropriately by pitching them in every ninth-inning lead. His other options: keeping Justin Miller in for a second inning after a 13-pitch eighth, turning to free-agent signee T.J. McFarland, a lefty who pitched the night before, or turning to Andrew Miller or John Gant, who both pitched the night before.
García was Shildt’s clear choice, in a bullpen with just five arms remaining from the Opening Day roster. Some games will have to be won without Reyes and Gallegos if the Cards hope to claw back into the postseason hunt.
“I can't pitch those guys every night,” Shildt said. “We have a five-run lead in the ninth, other guys have to pitch. There's a reason there's a three-run save. …
“It’s the right move. It didn't work out.”
Thirty-eight times this season, the Cardinals had every reason to boast confidence when García threw his first pitch in the ninth. The win would have been another of the statement variety over the Cubs, with homers from Nolan Arenado, Tommy Edman and José Rondón.
Instead, it left lingering more difficult questions of what kind of team the Cardinals see themselves ahead of the July 30 Trade Deadline.
And for Oviedo, it was a brutal break on an evening he did everything to deserve his first career victory. Instead, he took one step closer toward a dubious mark, two starts behind Daniel Ponce de Leon (19) for the most in Cardinals history to start a career without a win.
“I was happy, one, because I gave the team a chance to win the game,” Oviedo said. “I still got a lot of games to pitch, and I’ll always still have my chance. If I always give my team a chance to win, that’s all that really matters.”
“It's really a gosh darn shame that this guy didn't get his first Major League win tonight. He earned it. He pitched extremely well,” Shildt said. “I mean, he was really, really good. Gave us five strong innings and left with the lead, you can't ask for much more than that.”
It was set up to be a night of jubilation, for Oviedo and the Cardinals as they look to regain contention in the chase for the NL Central via a third consecutive win over their rival Cubs dating back to the first half.
And then, mercilessly and rapidly, it wasn’t.