Helsley closes back-to-back games, earns 1st save since June

Back from injury, flamethrower helps Cards to series win over Reds

September 10th, 2023

CINCINNATI -- Alone with his thoughts for much of the 2 1/2 months he was away from pitching high-leverage innings for the Cardinals because of a pain in his right forearm, Ryan Helsley was often tortured by so many “what if” questions.

What if he had been healthy all season to help the Cardinals avoid what might become their first 90-plus-loss season since 1990? What if he had started 2023 the same way that he pitched in 2022, when he became a National League All-Star and an All-MLB Second-Team performer for the first time in his career? What if he had been able to pitch on back-to-back nights -- as he did on Friday and Saturday nights in wins over the Reds -- more to buoy a Cardinals bullpen that has blown a whopping 26 saves this season?

As much irritation as he felt in a forearm that was tight and caused searing pain to shoot down his arm, Helsley hurt more being away from the team and unable to help in what ultimately became a lost season for the Cardinals.

On Saturday, when Helsley notched his first save since June 7 as the Cardinals outlasted the Reds, 4-3, at Great American Ball Park, the flame-throwing closer talked about how the season could have been different for St. Louis had he been able to avoid injury.

“It’s hard missing 60 or 70 games, and if I was available, maybe with some of those close games, we could have won them,” said Helsley, who took the ball on Saturday even though he closed out the ninth inning on Friday -- something Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said the club was trying to avoid with the team out of the playoff chase. “I didn’t start the year the way I wanted to, but I’m trying to take these reps and work on things -- whether that’s mentally or mechanically -- out there on the mound. I want to find those cues that help me be me.”

Helsley needed just 11 pitches on Friday -- eight of them strikes -- to finish the Reds. Then, about 45 minutes before Saturday’s first pitch, Helsley alerted bullpen coach Julio Rangel that he felt well enough after his pregame throwing session that he’d be able to pitch that night. That news excited Marmol, who was able to structure his bullpen in a way where the Cardinals got scoreless work out of Casey Lawrence (third hold), John King (seventh hold) and Giovanny Gallegos (17th hold) to get the ball to Helsley.

“He went out and played catch after throwing 11 pitches yesterday when he was super efficient, and he came out after batting practice and said he felt really good and if we had a lead he wanted the ball,” said Marmol, who noted that he originally planned to use Lawrence and Gallegos to close out the game before getting word that Helsley would be available. “We had a one-run lead and we gave him the ball.”

They had that lead because catcher Willson Contreras stayed as hot as he’s been in a Cardinals uniform, hitting a home run in his third straight game. A night after hitting a 440-foot blast into Great American Ball Park’s upper deck, Contreras hit a 411-foot smash that left the bat at 111.1 mph. It is the first time that Contreras has hit home runs in three straight games since April 13-17, 2021, when he was a member of the rival Cubs.

“I’m feeling good and I’m trying to stay short to the ball and make solid contact,” said Contreras, whose first-inning single got the Cardinals on the scoreboard and whose two-run homer in the third tied the game at 3. “I’m not trying to hit a home [run] because that doesn’t work for me. Right now, I’m trying to keep polishing my craft and make adjustments when needed.”

The big adjustment for Helsley was pitching on consecutive nights for the first time since May 27-28. As signs of how good his arm has been feeling, he struck out Braves star slugger Austin Riley with a 102 mph fastball on Tuesday and he ended things on Saturday by fanning Cincinnati’s Will Benson on a 102.1 mph fastball. Four of his 18 pitches on Saturday hit triple digits, and this time around a save situation was in play -- a first since he last closed out a save against the Rangers in early June.

“That was the first game that I’ve closed out [for a save] in three months,” he said. “That’s the first reps that I’ve had at that intensity in three months, so it was good. It’s different when the game’s on the line and it’s a save situation. I felt great. I was just trying to take it slow and not get too anxious. I wanted to compete one pitch at a time.”