LOS ANGELES — As the Cardinals inch nearer a playoff berth, they have a few questions they must yet confront before October arrives.
Adam Wainwright’s curious September is among them.
The Cardinals’ veteran right-hander and presumptive rotation leader going into the playoffs struggled through another grinding, laborious start, his fifth of this month. Wainwright pitched a season-low three innings and allowed four runs on six hits. All of his fastballs – from the sinker to the cutter – sagged beneath their season average in velocity, and the right-hander did not have a clean inning against the Dodgers.
The runs he allowed were all of the runs LA got as the Cardinals’ bullpen pitched six shutout innings for an offense that never arrived. The Dodgers won, 4-1, to take the series and clinch the first seed into the National League playoffs.
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LA, at 106-47, will have home field advantage throughout October.
The Cardinals’ magic number dropped to three with the Brewers’ loss Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals can clinch the National League Central title with a win Tuesday at Milwaukee.
A win that night will give the Cardinals the season-series tiebreaker.
Dodgers starter Michael Grove pitched five strong innings against the Cardinals. He limited them to one run on three hits. The run came in the second inning on Yadier Molina’ RBI single down the left-field line. That inning offered much more with three baserunners, but the Cardinals were unable to get it back around to the top of the lineup. In the fourth, an infield single from Juan Yepez and a throw that ricocheted off his knee put him at third base with one out. The Cardinals could not draw him home against Graves. Two singles in the sixth evaporated with a double play.
That was about as much as the Cardinals could muster offensively.
They’ve dropped both series in California on this road trip.
The crowd of 48,695 chanted for an Albert Pujols appearance and got one with one out in the ninth inning. Pujols struck out as a pinch-hitter and as he returned to the visitors dugout the former Dodger, who hit his 700th career home run here Friday, received an ovation.
Wainwright searches for sharpness
The “dead arm” phase that Wainwright has admitted pitching through this month reached a fifth consecutive game. The veteran right-hander had said earlier on the road trip, in San Diego, that such a lack of snap, sizzle, or zest in his arm had never lasted more than four starts. But there it was as he labored through each inning Sunday.
Wainwright faced 14 batters through the first two innings of his start, and he needed 55 pitches to squeeze six outs from the Dodgers’ lineup.
It wasn’t just flipped singles and hotshot doubles, but also walks and a hit batter. In the first inning, Wainwright walked Joey Gallo with the bases loaded to force home the Dodgers’ second run of the game. LA took a 2-0 lead out of the first inning, and it could have been far worse for the Cardinals had Wainwright not quelled the trouble. He faced three batters with the bases loaded, getting outs from two of them.
Will Smith’s single to center in the second inning gave the Dodgers a third run against Wainwright, and in the third, as his pitch count climbed toward the 70s, Wainwright pitched around two more base hits. Cody Bellinger sank to a knee to drive an RBI double on Wainwright’s 73rd pitch of the game.
The Cardinals discussed skipping Wainwright’s start at Dodger Stadium and giving the veteran at least two additional days of rest. There was consideration of having him next start after the Brewers’ series. During conversations with Wainwright and the coaching staff in San Diego, the decision was made to have Wainwright “pitch through” the dead arm sensation. Pitchers who experience that feeling during spring training continue to pitch and even ramp up their volume once they’re sure they cannot injure themselves. The same theory was in play for Wainwright – helped by the team’s lead in the standings.
The outing Sunday was the shortest of his season and the most difficult of this difficult month. He has only once pitched past the fifth inning, and with guile he’s been able to minimize the runs allowed, still giving up 17 (all earned) in 24 innings this month.
Thompson, Romero cruise in relief
Any assignment in any game is a chance for some of the young relievers on the Cardinals’ roster to make their cases to be part of the postseason. That is particularly true for the lefties, who are not only competing against the group in the majors but also having to show where they fit ahead of Genesis Cabrera as he continues to excel at Class AAA Memphis.
Thrust into the middle innings Sunday against an October-ready lineup, Zack Thompson and JoJo Romero had appearances notable for what did not change during them.
Thompson pitched two scoreless and Romero followed with a scoreless sixth inning to freeze LA’s lead at three runs and give the Cardinals time to mount a rally. Thompson retired all six batters he faced, including three on strikeouts. Romero followed with a perfect inning of his that included two strikeouts, both ending with a called strike three.
Thompson did not allow a ball out of the infield in his two innings.
Romero got help from a snazzy play up the middle by shortstop Tommy Edman.
Romero’s inning including matchups against two left-handed hitting Dodgers, but it ended with leadoff hitter and former MVP Mookie Betts, a right-handed hitter. Romero dotted a 98-mph fastball that was at the top shelf of the strike zone for a called strike 3. He had previously caught Bellinger, another former MVP, looking at a strike for the seventh pitch of the at-bat.
The Cardinals offense did not reward them or right-hander Jake Woodford as that trio combined to retire the first 12 batters they faced in order.
Extra! Extra! Freeman gets out! Twice!
A rising candidate to challenge for the National League MVP, Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman returned to the lineup Sunday and continued bedeviling the Cardinals. During the Dodgers visit to Busch Stadium this year, Freeman went nine-for-11 with four extra base hits. He opened Sunday’s game with an RBI double off Wainwright and a walk.
That gave him 10 hits in his first 12 at-bats against the Cardinals in 2022, and he reached base in 13 of his first 16 plate appearances.
It wasn’t until Thompson struck him out in the fourth inning that the Cardinals retired him. And in the seventh inning, Freeman lined out to shallow right field, where second baseman Brendan Donovan had camped himself on the shift.