CINCINNATI • At a ballpark known for its sudden and smothering deluges of offense, the rains have been far more abundant than the runs so far this season.
Through two games of an opening series between rivals, the Cardinals and host Cincinnati Reds have combined to play the first consecutive 1-0 games in the 12-year history of Great American Ball Park. Young lions Michael Wacha and Tony Cingrani exchanged zeroes through the first seven innings of Wednesday's game before Chris Heisey’s line-drive single through a five-man infield delivered the Reds’ 1-0 victory.
Including Wacha’s 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Reds and Cingrani’s seven scoreless for them, the starters in the first two games of the series have combined to allow one run in 27 2/3 innings. That run, the Cardinals’ only run so far this season, came on one swing — Yadier Molina’s opening day homer.
“We had a couple chances,” manager Mike Matheny said of Wednesday’s shutout. “But we’ve had a hard time stacking any kind of offense on top of anything we have got going. It all comes down to the big hit. When you’re having trouble getting many of them, you just need the right one at the right time.”
Heisey got that.
Back-to-back singles opened the bottom of the ninth inning against Cardinals righty Carlos Martinez. Zack Cozart, who changed the game for the Reds with his glove at shortstop, executed a bunt that moved the winning run to third. After an intentional walk, Heisey came to the plate as a pinch-hitter vs. Martinez (0-1). The Cardinals brought Allen Craig in from right field to man a position in front of second base as the fifth infielder.
Heisey threaded a single through the crowded, drawn-in infield to score Ryan Ludwick and end a game that was delayed 2 hours 40 minutes at the start by a storm.
“They got the little things done, they got the bunt down,” Matheny said. “We’re stuck in a spot trying to pull a rabbit out of our hat.”
Neither team has much success conjuring runs through the first two games of the season. The Reds first hit of the season with a runner in scoring position was Heisey’s. The Cardinals, those .330-hitting titans with runners in scoring position last season, are hitless in their first 10 at-bats with a runner on second, third or both.
Wednesday’s game was dominated by two 20-something pitchers making their first appearances as opening day members of the rotations. Wacha darted out of trouble, and Reds lefty Cingrani never gave the Cardinals a chance to create any. His superb fastball, a pitch he can rely eight times out of every 10, guided him to seven scoreless innings and nine strikeouts.
The Cardinals got only one runner to second base with less than two outs against Cingrani, and that came in the seventh inning. He promptly muzzled the rally with a fly ball to left field and an 81-mph off-speed pitch that Matt Adams fished for – unsuccessfully.
“He did a real good job of throwing it nowhere close and then making a real good pitch,” leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter said. “It’s tough to hit when a guy throws one at your neck and then paints one down and away. … That’s two nights in a row where the starting pitching on both sides was outstanding and not a lot of offense. We’ve got to find a way to win these games.”
Both the Reds and the Cardinals had any semblance of timing coming out of spring training muddled by weather. The teams had their exhibition games against minor-league affiliates rained out Friday. The Reds got a shortened game in on Saturday. Opening day happened without a drop, but then a scheduled workout day preceded Wednesday’s second game. The Cardinals have played two games in seven days.
More rain threatens today’s game as well.
“That’s not where we’re going,” Matheny said.
Wednesday’s game was delayed by an amoeba of a storm that slithered overhead, dragging a tail of thunderclouds at its end. The Reds had ample interest in playing the game, no matter how late, because of the 36,189 tickets sold for their annual “opening night celebration.” The team’s broadcasters wore tuxes with shiny red vests and bowties. There was a red-carpet welcome for the players. A live band was planted out near the right-field corner on the concourse. Fireworks were supposed to fill the sky after the game.
To make sure those happened, the fireworks went off before first pitch.
It would be 2 hours 45 minutes before Heisey would provide the only other spark.
Shut out on opening day for the first time in more than six decades, the Reds remained scoreless going into the ninth and set a franchise record with 17 scoreless innings to start the season. In 1909 and 1934, the Reds failed to score in the first 13 innings of the season. This year’s club broke that record in the fifth inning when Wacha pitched around an error to keep the game scoreless 0-0.
Wacha has yet to give up a run to the rival Reds in his three appearances against Cincinnati. It was four shutout innings of relief last season against the Reds that vaulted Wacha into the rotation and six scoreless against the Reds that riveted him in place as a starter for October. In 16 2/3 innings against the Reds, Wacha has yet to allow a run and he’s struck out 17, including seven on Wednesday. The righty pitched out of a bases-loaded jam of his creation in the fourth inning to remain tied. He hit Ludwick with a pitch and then fell behind 3-0 to Todd Frazier before walking him.
A weak grounder to third by Cozart ended the inning.
“I just had to match zeroes with him,” Wacha said.
The “him” Wacha mentioned was Cingrani, the 24-year-old former third-round pick who is the pitcher the Reds hope to fasten into their rotation for contending years ahead just as the Cardinals intend to do with Wacha. Cingrani is unbeaten now in three starts against the Cardinals, including two wins last season.
He asserted his hold on the lineup quickly by retiring the first nine batters he faced, including four by strikeout. The Cardinals reworked their lineup this offseason to be improved against lefties, but he caught two cornerstones of the lineup – Carpenter and No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday – looking at called third strikes with 95-mph and 96-mph fastballs, respectively.
Carpenter laced a single to open the fourth inning, but he only inched to second base before Cingrani had two more strikeouts to unplug the threat.
During Tuesday’s workout, Matheny described Cingrani as “one of those tough lefties.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell. The Cardinals have made an industry of turning all lefties tough. They were one of only two teams that had a losing record against lefties last season and a winning record overall. Their average and on-base-plus-slugging-percentage against lefties ranked within the bottom five in baseball.
One of the reasons for what Matheny called a “gap” was the production against lefties for some of the Cardinals in the middle of the order. Holliday’s average of .298 against lefties last season was too far off his career average of .302, but the hitters ahead of him and behind him did have dips. Craig’s average against lefties was .278 last season, down from a career .302. And switch-hitter Carlos Beltran, who signed with the Yankees this past winter, tumbled to .252 against lefties after hitting .289 for his career.
“You look at the bulk of the lineup and it should be doing very well against lefties,” Matheny said. “Sooner or later, everybody’s going to get tired of this conversation and lefties are going to end up not doing so well against us. I’m confident in that. But obviously that’s a conversations we’ve had. There’s a gap there.
“It was there. You can’t deny it.”
Before Wednesday’s game, Matheny predicted that his team’s production vs. lefties would “dramatically change.” It just wouldn’t against Cingrani. The lefty has a whipsaw fastball that defies hitters on both sides of the plate. Few pitchers throw their fastball more often than Cingrani, and he has one that he can shove at 96 mph when needed.
The lefty was able to blank the Cardinals by limiting the middle of the order. Even with Jhonny Peralta promoted to No. 2 in the lineup, the Cardinals’ Nos. 2-6 hitters went a combined one-for-13 against Cingrani. They drew two walks, including Peralta’s to open the seventh inning. The one hit, Craig’s single, came later in that inning to move Peralta into scoring position. There he stayed. Yadier Molina flew out to right field, and Matt Adams couldn’t connect on an off-speed pitch for a strikeout to end the inning.
In the eighth, the Cardinals had their best chance to score a run stolen by Cozart. Kolten Wong, the eighth hitter, tagged a ball to deep center, over the head of center fielder Billy Hamilton. Wong reached second. Carpenter flipped what appeared to be a single into shallow center field that would have easily scored Wong from second for a 1-0 lead. But shading toward second base, Cozart got a break on the ball and dove to snare the ball before it fell for a game-changing single.
“I put my head down to get a couple of sprints in and looked up and I was getting closer – so I said, ‘I’ve got to catch this,’” Cozart said. “I’ve never had a walk-off hit, but that was my walk-off defensive play right there.”