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Rookies rush to rescue, adjusting on the fly vs. Brewers and reshaping Cardinals' season

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St. Louis Cardinals' Nolan Gorman is congratulated by Juan Yepez after hitting a home run during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Milwaukee.

MILWAUKEE — When one of the catalysts they counted on elevating them this season could not take control of his start, the Cardinals turned within a game Tuesday where they increasingly have found solutions this season.

Rookies rose to the rescue.

With a leg kick he’s modified for the majors, Nolan Gorman catapulted two home runs, including a tiebreaking bolt that traveled 428 feet, and he tied career highs with four hits and four RBIs to lift the Cardinals to a 6-2 victory against Milwaukee at American Family Field. Flaunting the curveball he’s learning can defy big-league hitters, Zack Thompson steadied the game with 1 2/3 scoreless innings to earn his first major-league win.

The adjustments they’ve made to improve in prominent spots have come at the same time the Cardinals are becoming more and more reliant on young players growing on the go.

“That would be key to the whole year, in my opinion,” said manager Oliver Marmol, a rookie in his role, too. “I think you just nailed it. Their ability to not rely on their talent but develop it is going to be the key for our success.”

When the Cardinals exited spring training, they did so as they entered it – with incumbents at every position, a rotation with no room for rookies. Even with an expanded, 28-man roster on opening day the Cardinals had one player, Andre Pallante, who had yet to appear in the majors. Fast forward 2 ½ months, and three of the top five hitters in Tuesday’s lineup were rookies. The first pitcher into the game to relieve struggling Jack Flaherty was a rookie. Four of the six runs scored and five of the six RBIs collected, yep, by rookies.

The Cardinals and Brewers swapped first-inning rallies to tie the game, 2-2, and that’s where it was when Gorman lifted his right leg, steadied himself on his left leg, and let loose a swing that broke the tie. His fifth homer and his fifth that traveled farther than 400 feet gave the Cardinals a lead they would not misplace. Gorman led off the seventh with his second home run – his first of less than 400 feet, at 396 – and widened the Cardinals’ lead on the way to reknotting the top of the National League Central standings. Both the Brewers and Cardinals are 39-31. Thompson (1-0) started six scoreless innings of relief during which the Cardinals’ bullpen allowed one hit – a ninth-inning double.

This is how the game played out, how the season is developing.

It is not how the Cardinals envisioned either.

For several weeks, the Cardinals had eyed this series in Milwaukee as the series when Flaherty, former opening day starter, would return from injury and rejoin the rotation. The right-hander came back one start early, convincing the team he was ready for an increase in intensity and heightening expectations that he would be sharp, ready, stronger to face the Brewers. He was awry from the beginning on his way to five walks and a truncated three innings.

“It looked all out of sorts,” Flaherty said. “We’ll make our corrections.”

Flaherty walked three batters in the first inning, lost the 2-0 lead to No. 2 hitter Willy Adames’ two-run homer. Thirteen pitches into the game and Flaherty had allowed two walks and a home run. He missed the strike zone with seven fastballs in the first three hitters. Brewers first baseman Rowdy Tellez did not see a strike from Flaherty until the eight pitch he faced, and he accepted his second walk of the game on the ninth pitch.

Mechanics had been a focus of Flaherty’s rehab from inflammation that ended his spring training before he threw a pitch off the mound. He lacked any consistency with them Tuesday – sometimes swinging off the mound to the first-base side.

“Felt out of synch with his body,” Marmol said.

The Cardinals decided to let Flaherty build his arm strength in games that counted, rather than remain on a rehab assignment with starts in the minors. That complicated Tuesday’s game by requiring Marmol to stick with Flaherty long enough that he advanced his pitch count, but not too long that he cost the game against the Cardinals’ rival for the division championship. The Cardinals invited this dilemma by bringing Flaherty back ahead of the initial plan.

“You’re weighing it against the other options in that spot of the rotation,” Marmol said. “So you’re weighing the option of could it be better with Jack building here? And our vote was yes. His vote was yes. Has it looked the way we wanted it to? No. Are we confident as a competitor he’ll figure it out his next outing? Yes.”

To do that, Flaherty will have to make adjustments. He had already started studying video before speaking with the media late Tuesday night. Hints for ways to improve are there.

In each of Flaherty’s three innings, he made the final pitch with two runners on base. And in each inning he minimized the potential bruising by getting at least an out on the pitch. The first inning ended when he conjured a double play. The second, after two singles, ended with a flyout. The third – which started with two walks – included Flaherty’s only strikeout.

“Game didn’t go that well,” Flaherty said. “I didn’t really have good stuff. I didn’t have good command or anything. But to keep the game right there, give us a fighting chance.”

They took advantage because of adjustments rookies already made.

Since his debut a month ago, Gorman and already twice fine-tuned his approach at the plate based on how opponents are testing him. To steady his view of the pitch and buy himself more time to determine when to swing, he turned his leg kick into a toe tap. He sensed himself drifting recently, his bat dragging behind late, and so on Tuesday he had the leg kick back, though not as pronounced at times. He leg-kicked with his pulled an RBI single to right in the first inning. He leg-kicked when he connected for the solo homer to dead-center in the fourth. He had a smaller leg kick for his second homer of the game, his sixth of the season.

“Those balls were demolished,” Marmol said of Gorman’s homers, which left his bat at 108.7 mph and 107.9 mph, respectively. “The adjustment’s real. It was needed. We continue to say this kid has a lot of power. His aptitude, approach, adjustability – I think we’re going to start to see less swing and miss and more contact. Definitely has the ability to do that. When he makes contact the ball goes a long way.”

Said Gorman: “When I get a pitch in the zone, in my zone, and get my A-swing off, good things happen.”

In the outfield during batting practice on Monday, Thompson and Marmol talked about the lefty’s curveball. His best pitch, especially when paired with the above-average velocity of his fastball, had been sparingly used in his limited appearances. Thompson talked to Marmol about how he had been working on the side to land the curve in the strike zone – not veer it outside as a chase pitch big-league hitters ignored.

Called into the game as immediate relief for Flaherty, Thompson threw more curveballs (13) than any other pitch. He landed 10 for strikes. Tellez took one for a strikeout.

“It’s huge,” Thompson said of a young players ability to adjust within games at the major-league level. “I know those pitches are good enough to compete at this level. I need to be in the zone. I need to be in competitive counts.”

Thompson struck out three and walked one before turning the ball to Drew VerHagen for the final out of the fifth inning. Co-closers Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Hensley split the final four innings and got 12 outs from 13 batters to cinch the game.

Gorman added his fourth hit and his fourth RBI in the eighth inning to score fellow rookie Brendan Donovan. Starting at first base Tuesday, Donovan has had to adjust at the plate while also moving all over the field to find playing time where available. He has become as prominent in the lineup as the Cardinals expected an established starter to be at the beginning of the season.

Things change.

Rookies have responded.

And they’ll have to adjust again tomorrow.

“We’ll see when it comes,” Gorman said. “Keep adapting. Kind of saw a little bit tonight. First at-bat: getting sliders. Hit the slider, first pitch, and they adjusted off of that. It’s a game within in a game, so it’s always adjusting.”

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