A bullpen blunder, a bad bounce put Cardinals at boiling point with seventh straight loss

The Cardinals got the start they needed but didn’t stick with the starter who provided it.

And when they got the hit they craved, it took the unluckiest bounce possible.

Jordan Montgomery, riding a tailwind of five consecutive scoreless innings, left the sixth with a firm grip on the game but did not throw a pitch in the seventh. The game went sideways in his absence as the Cardinals’ bullpen misplaced the lead in the seventh inning. A double that would have taken it back bounced over the wall for a rulebook double that stopped the tying run from scoring. So it goes for the Cardinals. Even RBI doubles are detrimental.

The Cardinals left the bases loaded in the seventh and eighth innings as they fell, 5-4, to the Detroit Tigers on Friday night at Busch Stadium.

To scramble to rally and avoid their seventh consecutive loss, the Cardinals gave up the designated hitter to use a pinch-hitter and called on Nolan Gorman a day after a sore back kept him from an at-bat. Neither worked. Both would have looked differently had Lars Nootbaar’s double bounced shy of the wall instead of over it. Nootbaar’s liner to the right-center gap would have brought Paul DeJong around from first base to tie the game, 5-5, but the hop over the wall meant DeJong had to return to third, advancing only two bases, by rule.

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Paul Goldschmidt opened the ninth with a leadoff double to get the potential tying run in scoring position, and there he stood to watch Alex Lange strike out the next three Cardinals to secure the save.

Cardinals host Tigers

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman reaches for the ball as Detroit Tigers catcher Eric Hasse safely slides into second base in the first inning on Friday, May 5, 2023, at Busch Stadium. 

Frustrations with home-plate umpire Junior Valentine’s strike zone peaked in the eighth when a 3-1 pitch outside to Dylan Carlson was called a strike. They boiled over in the ninth, bench coach Joe McEwing and manager Oliver Marmol were ejected ahead of the game-ending strikeout. The whole crew and Cardinals coaches were shouting at each other as the Tigers shook hands.

Before the late drama and unfortunate bounce, the game hinged on another wretched seventh-inning.

The moment Montgomery left the game, the lead capsized on the Cardinals.

The Cardinals’ most reliable starting pitcher and author of half of their quality starts, Montgomery steadied after a two-run, two-strike homer in the first inning and outmaneuvered the Tigers for the next five innings. He had three flawless innings to go with six strikeouts, and the two runs on homer were the only runs he allowed. The one time the Tigers got a runner to third base on him after the first inning, Montgomery dispatched the hitter swiftly with three strikes and a 95-mph exclamation point to end the inning.

He was in complete command as the game reached the seventh inning. The Tigers had the bottom of the order up, and Montgomery seemed to have more to give with only 89 pitches on his arm. He had thrown more pitches than that in five of his previous six starts. (The one time he did not he allowed seven runs.)

Cardinals host Tigers

St. Louis Cardinals infielder Nolan Arenado waits for the inning changeover on Friday, May 5, 2023, in the seventh inning against the Detroit Tigers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. 

Yet, he did not emerge from the dugout.

The bullpen gate swung open.

An explanation for the pitching change and its timing was not available due to the final-out deadline for this article.

Hicks began the seventh with a walk to the leadoff batter. That would become the tying run as two of the next three batters also reached base. Hicks hit CBC grad Matt Vierling with a pitch to put the go-ahead run on base. A midgame replacement at center field, Riley Greene then delivered an 0-2 double that reversed the lead. A third run in the inning scored when Spencer Torkelson greeted Giovanny Gallegos with an RBI double.

The Cardinals have been outscored 30-13 in the seventh innings of games this season, 20-2 in the seventh inning of the first game in a series.

The Cardinals have allowed at least five runs in eight of their past 10 games.

Cardinals host Tigers

Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner waits for a throw at home plate as Detroit Tigers outfielder Matt Vierling scores in the seventh inning on Friday, May 5, 2023, at Busch Stadium. 

Arenado ends career-long drought

It was not the thunderous mash to the outfield, the liner over the head of the shortstop, or even a jolly skipper threaded through the infield, but it ended one of the most telling droughts of the season for the Cardinals.

In the fourth inning, a rulebook double by Goldschmidt and balloon-drop single by Willson Contreras got the tying and go-ahead run on base for Arenado, one of the game’s true RBI monsters. From his debut in 2013 to 2022, Arenado led the majors with 982 RBIs, and he had 32 on the second-most, teammate Goldschmidt’s 950. But since April 22, Arenado had nary a one for the Cardinals.

The 10-game drought was the longest of his career.

Goldschmidt advanced to third on Contreras’s fly ball that dropped between two Tigers’ fielders in right field. That put him in position to score when Arenado, down 0-2 in the count and down searching for his swing this season, punched a grounder that he knew would at least advance the runners. That RBI tied the game, 2-2, and gave Arenado his 15th RBI of the season.

Andrew Knizner’s first homer of the season provided the Cardinals’ first run in the third and cleaved the Tigers’ early 2-0 lead in half.

Contreras’ savvy slide takes lead

Cast at designated hitter for the game, Contreras took third on Arenado’s groundout. When Dylan Carlson followed Arenado with another groundball — this one up the middle — Contreras made his break for the lead. Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop gloved the ball ahead of second base and threw home to try and beat Contreras.

Contreras dove toward the back edge of home plate and got his right (outside) arm to it, leaving Jake Rogers’ tag to only brush air as Contreras leaned away from it for a 3-2 game.

Baez pounces on Cardinals’ two-strike troubles

In the aftermath of allowing 10 runs before he could finish the third inning, Jack Flaherty diagnosed a problem he and the rest of the pitching staff had with two-strike pitches. There was a lot more to his struggles Thursday than just delivering on two strikes, but the right-hander made the point that the staff, as a whole, had difficulty closing out that count.

The reasons are as varied as the pitcher, but the examples are as abundant as the innings — and were from the start Friday.

By the third batter of their interleague visit to Busch, the Tigers had a 2-0 lead because of a two-strike hit when the Cardinals’ pitcher was ahead in the count. Javier Baez, a former Cub but always a free-swinger, connected on a 1-2 curveball for a two-run homer that dropped just over the left-field fence. Montgomery had gotten ahead on Baez with two pitches that were not in the zone — a sinker and a changeup — and Baez went plunging after them. On the 1-2 pitch, Montgomery dropped a curveball that was out of the zone and Baez still tagged it.

The home run was the 39th the Cardinals have allowed this season, and 19 of them have come with a two-strike count. (Five of those on full counts.) The 19 are the most in the majors allowed on two-strike counts, and the Cardinals have also allowed 131 two-strike hits, 11 more than the next closest team, meandering Oakland. Opponents are hitting .218 against Cardinals with two strikes, and that too is the highest in the majors.

“We’re getting there more often, and then we’re not putting guys away,” Marmol said. “The reason we’re not putting guys away is different for each guy. You can probably bucket (a few of) them. It’s not the same for the entire staff.”

A similar spot found Montgomery in the fifth.

A two-strike double opened the inning, and by the time he had two outs, he also had to deal with two runners on and the tying run at third base. Cleanup hitter Eric Haase fell behind 0-2 to Montgomery. He fouled off a pitch. He had the Cardinals right where so many have had success against them. No wonder he couldn’t move when Montgomery tucked a 95-mph fastball inside the lower corner of the strike zone, just on the edge. The called strike 3 ended the inning and the Cardinals’ one-run lead endured a two-strike count.

The double off Hicks that undid the Cardinals’ lead came on an 0-2 count.

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In today’s 10 a.m. “Ten Hochman” video — brought to you by Siteman Cancer Center and Window Nation — Ben Hochman discusses Tyler O’Neill and why the Cardinals outfielder is looking more and more like a “one-year wonder.” Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Danielle Fishel! And as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat!

Benjamin Hochman

2023-05-06 03:20:00