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Closer Ryan Helsley sizzles through third known ‘immaculate’ inning in Cardinals history

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On the eighth pitch of the ninth inning, Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley realized he was on the brink of a rarity when Cincinnati’s Donovan Solano fouled off a 101.1-mph fastball.

Helsley had struck out the first two Reds of the inning on six pitches and ahead 0-2 on Solano, the right-hander realized he was a pitch away from perfection.

“I was like, alright, I’ve got one shot at it,” Helsley said. “Let’s try to rip the best pitch of the night.”

He spun his hardest slider of the game.

On nine pitches, Helsley struck out three Reds on Friday night to complete the third known immaculate inning in Cardinals’ history and first since 2002. Since record-keeping could confirm that a pitcher got three strikeouts on the minimum nine pitches, there have been 108 immaculate innings. Helsley joins the Cardinals’ all-time wins leader, Bob Gibson, and the club’s all-time saves leader, Jason Isringhausen, as the only three pitchers in several generations to author one of the game’s rarest feats — the untouchable scoreless inning.

“He had immaculate stuff,” catcher Andrew Knizner said. “That’s a good quote. Somebody was going to say it.”

In the Cardinals’ 6-5 victory against Cincinnati, Helsley secured his 18th save. On his nine pitches, he got seven swings and misses. Five of those came on his slider.

The Cardinals have debuted a new entry for Helsley that includes dropping Busch Stadium into complete darkness save for the scoreboard and ribbon boards showing lava red. Flames appear on the main scoreboard, licking at Helsley’s last name, and the AC/DC “Hells Bells” chimes. Teammates have warmed to the closer-entry theater with Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt talking briefly Friday about holding off on those warmup grounders so an infielder doesn’t lose sight of it in the darkness.

When the lights popped back on Friday, there was Helsley, his belt buckle loosened and his palms up as the umpire checked for foreign, sticky substance.

It took less time for Knizner to determine only Helsley’s stuff was filthy.

“You can just see a look in a guy’s eyes and know how that ball is coming out of his hand,” Knizner said. “He’s got some good stuff tonight. Then it’s a matter of mixing it up and attacking hitters, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Here is immaculateness, pitch by pitch.

The ninth began with Reds’ No. 3 hitter Kyle Farmer leading off. Helsley challenged him with a 98.1-mph fastball that Farmer took for a strike. Helsley followed with the first of his five sliders. Farmer whiffed on the 90.7-mph breaking ball. Helsley went back to the slider, dropping it out of the zone and away from Farmer at 93.4 mph. Farmer still gave chase for the first strikeout of the inning.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good fastball,” starter Jack Flaherty said. “But he’s throwing sliders that are 92-94 mph.”

Cleanup hitter Jake Fraley followed Farmer. Fraley had the two-run double off Flaherty in the fifth inning that put the Reds ahead before Albert Pujols’ 698th career home run yanked the Cardinals back into the game. Helsley was out to close a lead created an inning later with back-to-back doubles from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

Fraley couldn’t catch up to a 101.5-mph fastball.

He was down, 0-1.

Helsley went back to the slider, at 92 mph, for a swinging strike.

He was up, 0-2.

For the swift conclusion, Helsley landed his fastest pitch of the inning, at 101.7 mph, for a swinging strikeout.

“He was nasty,” Arenado said. “Just nasty, too.”

Solano, a former Cardinals’ farmhand who revitalized his career with two runs at a batting title with San Francisco, came up third. He saw the opposite sequence of pitches as Fraley with the fastball bookended by sliders. Solano swung at and missed a 92.7-mph slider to start his at-bat. Then Helsley delivered the 101.1-mph fastball that Solano fouled off.

For that best pitch of the night, Helsley ripped the slider — the hardest, fastest, sharpest slider he threw of the game. Solano had no chance against the 94.3-mph slider. All five sliders Helsley threw a Reds batter swung at, and all five swings missed. Solano’s ended the game and gave Helsley a place alongside Gibson and Isringhausen.

“Nine pitches. Three punchouts. His stuff was electric,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “His slider was unhittable.”

Helsley’s outing on Sept. 16, 2022 against Cincinnati joins the two previous immaculate innings that can be confirmed in Cardinals history. All three have happened in downtown St. Louis — two at Busch Stadium II and Helsley’s at Busch II. On May 12, 1969, Gibson retired the Dodgers in order with three strikeouts on nine pitches in the seventh inning. He struck out Len Gabrielson, Paul Popovich, and John Miller to maintain a three-run lead. More than 30 years later, at the same ballpark, Isringhausen entered a tie game on April 13, 2002, against Houston. Isringhausen struck out Daryle Ward, Jose Vizcaino, and Julio Lugo in order and on nine pitches.

Gibson and Isringhausen got the win with their immaculate innings.

Helsley was the first to get a save.

“For him to come in, shut it down right there, without a doubt,” Knizner said. “Pretty impressive.”

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