The Cardinals did something Sunday they hadn’t done in 31 years, when the Cincinnati Reds last were World Series champions and the Cards most recently finished in last place in their division. The year was Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog’s last year as Cardinals manager, 1990, and the event, from May 4-7, was the last previous time the Reds had swept a four-game series in St. Louis.
With Jesse Winker hitting home runs in the first two innings off John Gant, mostly accounting for a 7-0 Cincinnati lead heading into the sixth inning, the aforementioned scenario seemed a foregone conclusion.
Then, with Reds starter Wade Miley out of the game, the Cardinals, who have lost five games in succession and seven out of their past eight, ravaged three Cincinnati relievers in a seven-run sixth to draw even. But Winker, connecting on a bad 0-2 curveball from Alex Reyes in the ninth, smacked his third homer of the game. That gave him six RBIs and the Reds the lead.
“Game over,” thought Cincinnati closer Lucas Sims.
The Cardinals had one more comeback left. Paul Goldschmidt, who had three hits, singled and Nolan Arenado, who had four hits, bounced a double into the stands to give the Cardinals runners at second and third with nobody out in the home ninth. But there they stayed and the Reds hung on for an improbable 8-7 win as Tyler O’Neill, who had sparked the seven-run rally with a two-run homer, popped up then Edmundo Sosa and Jose Rondon struck out against Sims, who was appearing for the third time in the four-game series.
Reyes, still 16 for 16 in save opportunities this year, was making his first appearance of the series because the Cardinals hadn’t been tied or ahead in the late innings in any of the previous games. They were ahead after only three of the 36 innings in the series.
Asked if an 8-7 loss felt any different than a 7-0 thrashing, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt gave the question some thought and responded, “They both hurt, right?
“This one stings. I love these guys. A lot of people would have proverbially thrown in the towel. This group wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t going to do it. To have a seven-run inning and have the winning run at second with nobody out in the ninth . . . that’s a pretty special group.”
Thus, a stretch of 17 games in 17 days ended with the Cardinals’ 11th loss in that span. In a previous 17-game stretch, they were 13-4, taking over first place in the National League Central Division. Now, they are in third place, behind Milwaukee and Chicago, even though they have a winning record both at home and on the road. But they are barely over .500 at home (15-14) and away from home (16-15).
The Cardinals’ infield defense turned in some gems Sunday and the overall defense was consistently strong throughout the series. Shildt agreed that he never had seen a team swept in four games while playing so cleanly in the field.
“But Winker almost single-handedly beat us today,” he said.
Against Michael Feliz in the sixth, O’Neill crushed his 13th homer — 427 feet to the greenery in dead center following a leadoff single by Arenado. Sosa walked and Jose Rondon got an infield hit when third baseman Eugeno Suarez made a diving stop but couldn’t get the out.
Andrew Knizner walked to load the bases and pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter, who has done the best hitting of his career with the bases loaded, greeted Brad Brach with a two-run double off the glove of center fielder Shogo Akiyama in right center.
Tommy Edman singled off the glove of Brach, with Knizner scoring and Carpenter going to third when shortstop Mike Freeman threw high at first. Dylan Carlson walked to reload the bases but the inning hit a brief glitch when Goldschmidt hit a liner toward the mound where Tejay Antone stabbed the ball to his left and doubled off Carlson at first.
But Arenado raised his RBI total to 40 with a two-run single to left center. The Cardinals had caught up at 7-7 and Arenado had reached 800 RBIs for his career.
Gant had carried a 1.60 earned-run average into the game and had allowed more than two runs in an outing only once this season and just one homer, to Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper, in 50 2/3 innings. He was caught in a sudden downpour in the first and had to ask for a towel on a couple of occasions in the inning but Gant said he rather enjoyed the precipitation.
“It made the balls a little slick,” he said. “But it was kind of fun pitching in the rain, to be honest with you. That hasn’t happened in a long time to me. It was kind of cool to go out there and get three outs in the rain.”
But Winker, who already had homered once, would bat again in the second when it wasn’t raining. And the result was even worse for the Cardinals — a three-run homer. A leadoff walk and a two-out hit batter were Gant’s undoing. Winker, on his way to his second three-run homer game of the season, had been just two for 10 with four strikeouts in his career against Gant.
“The dude’s swinging the bat pretty well right now,” Gant said. “He hit an inside ‘heater’ out. I thought I got it on him pretty well but the dude put a good swing on it.”
Gant allowed seven hits and seven runs in four innings, including a two-run double by Suarez in the third.
“A little bit of everything was not quite as sharp as I would have liked it to be,” he said.
The Cardinals had the potential tying run at the plate in the ninth inning on Saturday, had the potential winning run at the plate in the ninth on Friday and the potential winning run at the plate in the ninth inning on Thursday. To no avail. The hitters they really needed at the plate in the ninth Sunday were the ones who already were on base.
Cincinnati manager David Bell said he considered intentionally walking each of the final three hitters to set up forces or double plays but added, “With all righthanded hitters, I like keeping the base open. It gives Lucas a little bit more freedom to work there. He came through.”
And there were no cigars for the Cardinals, who had come close again.
“There’s no consolation prizes in this game — we understand that,” Shildt said. “I’m frustrated, but I’m not concerned. There would be concern if there were some other things that were taking place — lack of effort, lack of fight, lack of competitive spirit, playing sloppy. But that wasn’t necessarily the case this whole series.
“Frustration lies in not getting the reward for the effort over the last three days. It’s been pretty damn good.”