DETROIT -- The Cardinals are trying desperately to figure things out in the back end of their bullpen, and no valuable answers were found after Jordan Hicks gave up a two-run walk-off home run to Jeimer Candelario on Friday night in a 5-3 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park.
Hicks (3-4) took the mound in the ninth inning after throwing a scoreless eighth. Getting consecutive innings of work hasn't been the norm for Hicks this season. The last time he threw more than a full inning was Aug. 11 against the Royals.
"I always want the ball, no matter what situation," Hicks said. "I used to be a starter. It's not a hassle. It's not any extra stress on my arm. I wanted the ball. I wanted to go back out there."
Hicks made 31 starts over two years in the Minors, including 19 last season. Now he's one installment in an array of Cardinals bullpen arms that will be mixed and matched down the stretch of this season. Hicks, along with Carlos Martinez and Bud Norris, are vying for these late innings.
The 22-year-old Hicks got his turn Friday night, and he dialed up his fastball to as high as 103.4 mph, according to Statcast™. The pitch Candelario hit out was tracked at 102.1 mph, marking the fastest pitch hit for a home run this season and the third-fastest in the pitch-tracking era (2008-present).
"He's a professional baseball player," Hicks said, "so I'm not surprised by that."
It was just the second home run allowed by Hicks this season. The other one came on June 16 against the Cubs
"I try to learn from my mistakes instead of mourning over them," Hicks said. "It's not the end of the world, I'll put it that way."
A significant reason the Cardinals were in a position to be playing for extra innings was Marcell Ozuna, who had his second multi-home run game of the week, hitting a solo jack in each of his first two at-bats. Kolten Wong scored in the fifth inning after a leadoff double, but only one other baserunner reached third.
The result spoiled what was another good start from rookie left-hander Austin Gomber, who threw six innings, plus a batter in the seventh, allowing three runs on six hits. Since joining the starting rotation in late July, Gomber has shown himself to be yet another young arm the Cardinals can count on while injuries pluck away at the pitching staff. It was the first time since Aug. 4 that Gomber allowed more than two runs. His ERA as a starter is now 2.78.
The loss is a setback as St. Louis hunts for a playoff spot. The NL Central-leading Cubs enjoyed an off-day on Friday thanks to a rainout, and they lead Milwaukee by four games despite the Brewers' win. The Crew extended its lead over the Cards for the first NL Wild Card spot to 1 1/2 games. The Dodgers' win closed the gap between L.A. and the Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot to one game.
The pitching staff will get a significant boost on Monday, when Adam Wainwright is scheduled to make his first start since May 13. At some point after that, the Cardinals are going to try to work in an extra day of rest for their young starters through the rest of the season. More help appeared close to arriving with Michael Wacha scheduled to make a rehab start with Triple-A Memphis on Friday, but he was scratched with left oblique discomfort. Wacha, if healthy, could at least help out of the Cardinals' bullpen if he isn't able to build up enough endurance to join the starting rotation.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Tigers looked poised to take the lead in the seventh inning after getting a runner to third with no outs, but Wong, playing at second base in his first game since being activated off the 10-day disabled list on Wednesday, made two crucial plays to keep the game tied at 3.
With Dawel Lugo on first, the speedy Victor Reyes laid down a sacrifice bunt that was fielded by Dominic Leone, who made a bad throw to first. But Wong was running to back up the play and made a diving stop, keeping Lugo at third and Reyes at first.
After Leone got two straight strikeouts and intentionally walked Nicholas Castellanos, Victor Martinez hit what likely would have been a two-run single, but Wong made a diving stop in shallow right field to get the final out of the inning.
"Defense is unglorified at this moment," Wong said. "Everyone talks about launch angles and hitting home runs and this and that, but there's two sides to the game. I take pride in that side. I take pride in my defense."
The Cardinals send Jack Flaherty (8-6, 2.83 ERA) to the mound Saturday night at Comerica Park for a 5:10 p.m. CT first pitch. The rookie right-hander has a 1.22 ERA over his last six starts. The Tigers will counter with Matthew Boyd (9-12, 4.24), who has allowed eight earned runs over his last two outings.