There are competitions happening concurrently with the Cardinals — the one on the scoreboard and several in the dugout, all of which will shape the standings within a few months.
The internal contests of spring have spilled over into the regular season. Auditions are still underway for the rotation and the outfield, and games like Saturday’s showcased who is staking a claim. And also why the club is still searching for certainties. Carlos Martinez, craving his first win as a starter in years, did not tighten his grip on a spot in the rotation, and rookie outfielder Justin Williams went from having a breakthrough moment to getting struck by a ball that might have tied the game.
Immediately after the Cardinals narrowed the game to one run, Milwaukee pulled away with a five-run seventh for a 9-5 win at Busch Stadium.
On the 15th anniversary of the ballpark’s opening, a limited-capacity crowd of 13,304 saw the game turn on a play that needed to be reviewed to be confirmed but was not eligible, by rule. In the sixth inning, Williams, the potential tying run, took his lead off third and, as instructed, narrowed the gap between him and the foul line so he had a direct dash to the plate on a wild pitch or passed ball. Tommy Edman lined a ball right down the third-base line, and Williams jumped as it caromed near his ribcage and back into play.
Home plate umpire Alan Porter ruled the ball fair and dead, Williams out, and instead of a tie game, 3-3, the Cardinals’ rally went afoul.
“If you’re on the line and you get hit — dead ball and you’re out,” manager Mike Shildt said. “You get hit in foul territory, it hurts, but it’s a strike and still the batter gets to hit. So, the teach of that is to the line, but not on the line. … Alan said he looked down, they had the ball fair, and it hit him. So, if the ball’s fair and it him, part of his body is in fair territory, and hence the call.”
It could not be challenged for video review.
What continues to be under review for the Cardinals are so many of the roles they hoped some players would seize and secure in spring training but have not.
Tyler O’Neill injured his groin Saturday, throwing open another spot in the outfield that is aching for production. Austin Dean made a quick statement with a three-run homer in the eighth as O’Neill’s replacement. Injuries to two starters reduced the temp on that competition, though it’s about to be brought back to a boil. Kwang Hyun Kim will throw a 90-pitch simulated game Sunday, and his next outing is likely to be in a game for the Cardinals. If they do not upshift to a six-man rotation, that bounces one arm out. Sunday starter Daniel Ponce de Leon gets a second chance to claim first dibs on not being it. And his past as an All-Star and his wicked stuff can only keep Martinez (0-2) in the mix for so long without also being efficient. Their competition is with more than the opponent.
“I think it’s super-healthy, and the thing is I don’t have to create it,” Shildt said. “Healthy is the best word. Supportive is another word. We have guys who are taking good at-bats, making plays, doing things, want to be in the lineup. Depth of your team and guys on the bench who can come in and play is important for a good team.”
Winless as a starter since 2018 and 0-6 in his seven starts since 2019’s turn at closer, Martinez wound into trouble in the first inning. The fourth hit he allowed came back at him, glanced off his glove, clipped his shoulder, and got close enough to break one of the gold chains he wears on the mound.
“Almost hit my face,” said Martinez, who was stung by two hits during the game. “I covered my face with my glove, and it got my glove and a little bit on my shoulder. Doesn’t hurt. Just keep going.”
After his 25th pitch, Martinez had a full count to the batter and bases loaded. In spring, he would have been removed to avoid further stress. On Saturday, he had to press through. For the ninth pitch of Jace Peterson’s at-bat in the first, Martinez unleased a 94-mph fastball and got an inning-ending groundout. It took him 29 pitches to get three outs, but he allowed only one run and slipped free of a bases-loaded mess. He got quicker, better, and sharper for the next three innings before Avisail Garcia’s two-run homer in the fifth hastened his departure.
In eight games, the Cardinals starter has gone five or fewer innings seven times.
Adrian Houser (1-1) tiptoed around 10 baserunners to become the fourth consecutive Brewers starter to pitch at least five innings and not allow an earned run.
Houser’s win hinged on three moments, three intersections between Milwaukee’s hold on the game and the Cardinals’ ongoing hunt for who will grab opportunities.
In the second inning, Yadier Molina led off with the first of his three singles and four times on base. O’Neill had two on and no one out when he skipped into a double play that unplugged the inning and left him injured and unable to continue. In the fifth, singles by Edman and Paul Goldschmidt allowed Houser to pitch around Nolan Arenado to willingly face cleanup hitter Paul DeJong with the bases loaded. It was the second time in as many games that the Brewers walked to load the bases and dare a Cardinal not named Arenado or Goldschmidt to beat them.
DeJong struck out on three pitches and would slip deeper into a zero-for-20 funk with 11 strikeouts, inviting the potential that cleanup enters the mix of spots open for the taking.
In the sixth, the game found Williams. Molina started the rally, Dean continued it with a single, and Williams had his chance. He pulled a groundball right to first baseman Keston Hiura.
Right under his glove.
Right into right field.
Molina scored easy. Dean sped from first to home and arrived with a jubilance he would later explain was because he wanted to make the most of every instance on base. Williams eventually got to third — and that’s where he got the bruise that shifted the game. Hiura erased the runs from his error with a three-run homer in the seventh, and Dean answered with a three-run homer to Big Mac Land in the eighth. That only tidied the score, but heightened the competition for playing time — which is perpetual for the young hitters.
“You can look at it that way if you want,” Dean said. “I really don’t. When my opportunities are there, I have to make the best of them. If I don’t, I don’t. I know what my role is right now. My role is being a bench guy coming off late in the game.”
Until it is something more.
Martinez will have another start before Kim’s ready, and at least three before Miles Mikolas enters the conversation. Cleanup could have a new name this week. And there will be at least one open spot in the outfield Sunday.
“If I’m in there tomorrow,” Dean said, “take care of business.”