The gift Cincinnati tried several times to generously offer the Cardinals as part of their annual home opener celebration was haphazardly returned in a ninth inning that started ugly and got historically worse from there.
In a painstaking meltdown, Cardinals relievers allowed 10 runs, including nine in the ninth, and turned what was a one-run lead into a 13-4 debacle Monday. One of the worst home-opening losses ever for the Cardinals came in front of 47,345, the largest regular-season crowd at 7-year-old Busch Stadium III. The Reds tied the score against rookie Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth and then feasted on closer Mitchell Boggs’ control troubles in a rally that sent 15 batters to the plate and took the Cardinals two pitchers and 53 pitches to stanch.
“I think this is the worst outing of my career,” said Boggs, who allowed seven runs on two hits and got only one out. “I don’t think you can put it any other way. I didn’t execute and if you walk four guys in a tie ballgame in the ninth inning, that pretty much says it all. Not a good day.”
Two errors by Reds novice center fielder Shin-Soo Choo, both on hard liners by Yadier Molina, allowed three of the Cardinals’ four runs to score. Lefty Jaime Garcia, in the first home-opener start of his career, held fast through 6 2/3 innings with a career-high 10 strikeouts. But when manager Mike Matheny deployed his new late-inning formula to hold leads, the game capsized on him and his relievers. For the second time in as many chances, Rosenthal failed to hold a lead of three runs or less. Boggs (0-1) entered a tie game and promptly walked the first batter. Six of the seven batters he faced reached safely. All six scored.
The Cardinals went the entire lifespan of Busch II without allowing as many runs in a home opener, and the Reds’ 13 runs matched how many the Cubs scored in the Cardinals’ 1954 home opener for the most in the past century. The only time since joining the National League that the Cardinals have allowed more runs in a home opener was their first home game as a National League club, in 1892.
In the years since, the home opener has become a jubilant civic holiday, gathering traditions as each decade passes. With Budweiser’s Clydesdales, Hall of Famers in red blazers, the parade of players in Ford F-150 Raptors and a pitch-perfect memorial tribute to Stan Musial, the Cardinals proved again they know how to throw an opening.
It’s how to close that now vexes Matheny’s club.
“That was a tough one to swallow,” Matheny said. “We had it right where we wanted to be at the end and we just couldn’t finish it off.”
With less than two weeks remaining in spring training, Matheny had his late-inning arms ordered and primed like they were at the end of 2012. Closer Jason Motte was set for the ninth, preceded by Boggs in the eighth and Edward Mujica in the seventh. Rookie flamethrower Rosenthal would be the team’s answer when it needed a strikeout. Motte’s elbow flared up on March 21. He’s been on the disabled list since, and roles have been reassigned.
Boggs inherited the ninth. Rosenthal moved to the eighth.
Through one week of play this season, Boggs has Monday’s loss and is one for two in save opportunities. Rosenthal has blown two saves in games the Cardinals lost. Matheny’s trust in them was clear Monday when he didn’t have a reliever warming in the bullpen at the start of either of their innings.
“I have faith in them to get the job done,” Matheny said. Asked if he might reconsider after the two combined to allow eight runs in 1 1/3 innings, Matheny said: “We always keep the door open. Those guys are there for a reason. They’ve earned that spot. We’re not going to make any knee-jerk reactions.”
The Cardinals jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first inning when Molina tagged a line drive to deep center field that Choo tracked down. But he juggled and dropped the ball. The Reds traded for Choo this offseason to add on-base percentage to their lineup, and they’ve shoehorned him into center despite the fact he’s mostly played right in his career.
In the sixth, Molina again roped a line drive to center, and Choo had difficulty judging it through the sunlight. He dropped this liner and Matt Holliday scored. Through the seventh inning, the Cardinals remained ahead of the Reds and starter Mat Latos because of Choo.
“I almost died out there but my teammates gave me another life,” Choo said.
The reboot came in the eighth when pinch-hitter Xavier Paul grinded through an at-bat against Rosenthal. Paul fouled off two 99-mph pitches and sent a two-strike pitch to right for a game-tying single. Boggs opened the ninth with a 4-4 tie to hold. He walked Choo on four pitches. Strategy led him to issue two intentional walks in the inning. He did the fourth on his own with the bases loaded. By the time Choo hit for the second time in the inning, the Reds led 9-4 and the bases were loaded. Having given three runs away, Choo got them all back with a bases-clearing double off Marc Rzepczynski. Two of those runs went on Boggs’ ERA, which ballooned to 14.54.
Matheny felt confident enough in Boggs that he double-switched the righty into the game for as many as two innings of work. He did so at the expense of his No. 3 hitter, Holliday, in a tie game. Matheny said trading Boggs for that bat was “the risk you’re going to have to take.”
It was a risk quickly forgotten in the rubble of the ninth.
“I’m certainly not going to let this define my season,” Boggs said. “I would hope that I have about 70 or so more appearances left. It would be foolish of me to let this dictate how I handle myself after this. I would also be foolish not to learn from it.”