What could have been — what absolutely should have been — an uplifting end to a quest the Cardinals shared with their rookie pitcher instead came apart swiftly, spiraling into a loss as harrowing and unsightly as any this season.
It took 11 months, a few round trips to the minors and back, more than 1,400 pitches, and 17 starts for Johan Oviedo to perch himself in the dugout, one ninth inning away from his first win the majors. Against the rival Cubs, with a peek above .500 within their grasp, the Cardinals had a five-run lead entering the ninth. Oviedo found a space on the steps, not too far from other starters, for a good view of the field.
Having done so much to get them to that point, Oviedo could do nothing but watch as it all came apart.
The first Cubs batter of the ninth struck out but reached on a wild pitch.
The second batter got to second base on an error.
It got worse.
The Cubs, listing and at times listless, turned that wild pitch, an error, and three gift walks in the ninth inning into a 7-6 stunner against the host Cardinals on Busch Stadium. Alex Reyes failed to convert a save for the first time in his career, ending a run of 24-for-24 by allowing three runs and collecting only one out. So many of the Cardinals’ ills this season flooded the ruptured ninth — from walks galore to an ineffective option out of the bullpen — and capsized the lead. That cost Oviedo the win he held after five superb innings.
“He was dominant,” manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s a real gosh darn shame this guy doesn’t get his first major-league win. He earned it in every facet. He gave us five strong innings, left with the lead, and can’t ask for much more than that.”
The whiplash in the ninth inning snapped any of the vibes the Cardinals had generated on the cusp of their fourth consecutive victory. They were about to see over .500 for the first time since the afternoon of June 20 between doubleheaders in Atlanta. They were about to shove the Cubs that much closer to a trade deadline that could rewrite their roster and shed fan favorites. They could spark some interest in a series that has not yet drawn a crowd of more than 40,000 despite Busch being cleared for full capacity. A paid-ticket crowd of 35,402 left acres of sections unclaimed Tuesday night.
The Cardinals viewed this series as a chance to get traction in the standings and use their archrival Cubs as a stepstool back into contention.
That just made the fall Tuesday more bruising.
They botched their first five-run lead in the ninth since July 2010 at Coors Field.
A gust of three homers from Nolan Arenado, Tommy Edman, and, for the first time as a Cardinal, Jose Rondon carried Oviedo’s sturdy start and a 6-1 lead into the ninth inning. With no save to be had and plenty of insurance, Shildt went to Luis Garcia, part of the cavalcade of newcomers added to the bullpen in the past month. Garcia struck out Patrick Wisdom, but the pitch got past catcher Yadier Molina, who is playing with a sore foot, and that allowed Wisdom to reach first.
Nico Hoerner chopped a grounder to shortstop that Paul DeJong couldn’t convert into an out. His throw went wild and the runners scooted into scoring position on the error.
The Cardinals’ charity didn’t stop.
Garcia walked the next batter on four pitches.
With the tying run suddenly on deck and a save situation in play, Shildt went to closer Reyes, who he wished to avoid for saves in the coming days. Reyes walked two of the first three batters he faced to force home two runs and keep the bases loaded for the Cubs’ No. 3 hitter, shortstop Javier Baez. He stung a single up the middle to put the tying run at third, and Ian Happ followed with a double into the right-field corner to complete the last-minute reversal.
“The walks caught up,” Shildt said.
The ninth was a messy contrast to the tidiness Oviedo brought back from his one-start turn with Class AAA Memphis during the All-Star break. The 23-year-old righthander established his approach and a tone in the first inning.
He was going to throw strikes.
He was going to work with some alacrity.
And had a personal message to share, written on his hat.
Oviedo, who is from Cuba and whose family remains in Cuba, wrote “SOS CUBA” on the side of his Cardinals’ cap. On the front, near the interlocking STL, he penned “Patria Y Vida,” the hashtag and rallying phrase of support for protestors in Cuba who decrying the country’s lack of food, supplies, and medicine and conditions caused by government actions. Arenado, whose father is from Cuba, has had the same phrase — for my homeland, my life — written on his cap in recent games.
“My country right now is going through some battles,” Oviedo said, adding that he speaks to his family daily and they are OK. “Government. People. It’s one way to support them and try to make things better for the people.”
Oviedo allowed one run in the second inning and other than that one flicker of a threat the Cubs did not get a runner to second base against him. He struck out four of the final six batters he faced. The only walk he allowed was an intentional one to draw a better matchup against the opposing pitcher.
Oviedo got a groundout from Trevor Williams.
He took it at first base himself.
He did as much as he could on his own. He collected his second career RBI during the three-run third inning that included Arenado’s tie-breaking homer and the pull-away runs. In his final four innings he allowed only two balls out of the infield, and one of them was a routine fly ball to center field. Oviedo struck out four of the final six batters he faced.
He even faced questions on his own. The rookie was the only player who made available to the media in the Zoom room after the game to answer questions.
"I was happy because I gave my team a chance to win the game," he said about being so close to his first win and watching it slip away. "I've still got a lot of games to pitch and I will have more chances. If I give my team a chance to win, that's all that really matters."
Oviedo was dealing with some soreness in a finger, and the Cardinals were not going to let him get anywhere near the brink of losing the game. The completion of the fifth inning qualified him for the win. The expediency of a quick inning earned him first dibs on the sixth.
When the first batter reached with a single, Oviedo was lifted for the bullpen. He went to the dugout having thrown 74 pitches (50 strikes) and holding a 4-1 lead. Genesis Cabrera pitched out of the sixth to free Oviedo’s line and assure only one run came against him.
The rest came later, splintering through the ninth, to undo it all.