PITTSBURGH — As Paul Goldschmidt has workshopped his swing in the batting cage and convened with video for any pointers it might offer about how to unlock his production, he has been searching for a constant that could lead to consistency.
Here’s one: The Pirates.
Less than a week after his three-run homer capsized Pittsburgh at Busch Stadium, Goldschmidt launched a grand slam in extra innings to send the Cardinals to a 6-5 victory at PNC Park. The grand slam pushed the Cardinals ahead by four runs heading into the bottom of the 10th, and they needed every one of those runs to weather Pittsburgh’s last-gasp rally against lefty Chasen Shreve and closer Carlos Martinez. Martinez allowed a two-run homer and needed the potential tying run thrown out at the plate to survive the 10th for his ninth save.
Goldschmidt’s fifth career grand slam – his first since moving to St. Louis – carried the Cardinals to their eighth victory in their past 10 games. It also helped mask two creeping fissures in the façade of the team’s winning ways. The rotation has started to leak innings, and situational hitting continues to challenge the Cardinals except on days they bulldoze past it with power.
Matt Wieters, who homered and drove home the Cardinals’ first two runs of the game, drew a leadoff walk in the 10th. Tommy Edman followed with a single, and Dexter Fowler was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Goldschmidt got a break Sunday from the lineup after an arduous series in Cincinnati that included a four-strikeout game and a two-for-11 weekend with no hits in four at-bats with runners in scoring position. It was a steep departure from when last the Pirates saw him and he pounded a three-run homer to win a game Wednesday.
A .271 career hitter with the bases loaded, Goldschmidt hit the fourth pitch he saw from reliever Clay Holmes over the seats in right-center field. The extra-inning grand slam was the Cardinals’ first since Matt Carpenter’s against Toronto in April 2017.
Goldschmidt had not hit a grand slam since June 2017.
The lead, so hearty at the moment, came unraveled quick in the bottom of the inning. The call-answer seesaw of the game continued right to the final out as Josh Bell doubled home a run off Shreve, and Jung Ho Kang greeted Martinez with a two-run homer. An error by shortstop Paul DeJong – his first in 38 games – prolonged the 10th inning. Kevin Newman attempted to score on Jacob Stallings single to right field, but Jose Martinez’s strike to home was swept quickly to the plate and caught Newman’s cleat for the out. The Pirates’ challenged the call and after a 104-second video review the out was upheld.
Coming out of the break, the Cardinals continued to streak of successful starts by the rotation, but since going on the road it has been more patchwork. The bullpen had to shoulder a series of short starts in Cincinnati, and a reliever got the win in two of the three victories the Cardinals had against the Reds. If not for Miles Mikolas’ six innings of work Saturday, the bullpen would have thrown more innings in Cincinnati than the rotation.
Ponce de Leon and Wacha split the first six innings Monday.
All of this rotation instability comes as a prelude to the trade deadline. If there is a position that offers the most brand-name options on the market, it’s starting pitching. The price could be high, and the Cardinals have so far not committed to the pursuit of a starter. Their argument entering the season was that the rotation was one of the deepest points on the roster, and yet it has been tested and thinned throughout the season. Three pitchers who started spring as starter candidates are in the bullpen – Wacha, Martinez, and John Gant – and two others have injuries with no clear timetable for return, Austin Gomber and Alex Reyes.
Wacha has twice been in and out of the rotation, and Ponce de Leon has been up and down and in and out of the rotation.
The Cardinals expected to throw quantity at the rotation and see quality emerge.
Quality has arrived in flickers. Quantity has been diminished.
A ballast would be beneficial.
Since moving to the bullpen, Wacha has allowed one run in 4 1/3 innings, and he’s struck out four while allowing six hits. Three of those hits came in three innings Monday. His line and Ponce de Leone’s line were mirror images, down to the three strikeouts but with the exception of Ponce de Leon’s four walks. Those contributed, in part, to the high pitch count Ponce de Leon had from the first inning. It took the Cardinals’ righthander 36 pitches to get the first three outs. At the start of the third inning, Ponce de Leon was averaging 10 pitches per every out he recorded – an untenable pace for a starter. Five of the first 10 Pirates he faced took him to a full count.
Pittsburgh loaded the bases against him in the first inning before he struck out back-to-back batters with fastballs to end the inning. He retired the Bucs in order in the second inning, and still it took him 18 pitches to get through three outs.
Wacha got the same amount of outs as Ponce de Leon – nine – and did so on almost half as many pitches. It’s that kind of efficiency that separates a starter because even if the results are going sideways the pitcher can swallow some innings and save the bullpen from wear. This past weekend, the Cardinals had to momentarily shift to 14 pitchers on the roster just to assure they could cover innings against the Reds and not overexpose the bullpen. Wacha has been part of that formula because he offers long relief. His three innings Monday could put him in position that his next act of relief is taking up a spot in the rotation.
The Cardinals took a lead in the top of the inning and lost it in the bottom twice long before the game reached the late innings. Matt Wieters’ provided the run each time – first with a solo homer into the right field seats, and then in the fourth inning his sacrifice fly exploited an error. Wieters’ eighth homer of the season gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead, and his sacrifice fly pushed them again out in front, 2-1.
Pittsburgh’s rallies were more democratic.
Four Pi rates reached base in the third against Ponce de Leon, and Colin Moran’s single up the middle knotted the game, 1-1. Moran’s single came on Ponce de Leon’s 83rd pitch of the game. In the fourth, Wacha had relieved Ponce de Leon, and it took a walk, a sacrifice bunt, and two hits to invent the tying run for a 2-2 game. Bryan Reynolds caromed a double off the Clemente Wall in right field to score Starling Marte and tie the game.
And there is stayed until the top of the 10th.
The Cardinals have been able to put together a successful patchwork of pitchers for the rotation in recent weeks, but in Cincinnati the bullpen had to shoulder a heavier workload and already in Pittsburgh a reliever threw as many innings as the starter.
Daniel Ponce de Leon's pitch count bloated so early that Michael Wacha had to enter for the start of the fourth inning despite the Cardinals leading, 2-1, in a relatively little-action game.
Ponce de Leon needed 34 pitches to complete the first inning. He got to a full-count on five of the first 10 Pirates he faced. He was averaging nearly 10 pitches for every out through the first six outs he got. Two strikeouts with the bases loaded in the first inning helped him keep the game scoreless. And he retired the Pirates in order in the second -- and still that required 18 pitches.
Wacha needed almost half as many pitches to get through his three innings. Since being relocated to the bullpen, the righthander has allowed one run in 4 1/3 innings and he's struck out four to six hits allowed.
The Cardinals cobbled together their two earned runs in the early innings against starter Trevor Williams. Matt Wieters slugged a full-count pitch into the right-field seats for a 1-0 lead and his eighth home run of the season. The next inning, Paul DeJong drew a walk, got to third base on an error, and scored on Wieters' sacrifice fly.
In each case, the Cardinals took the lead in the top of the inning and lost it in the bottom of the same inning.
The Pirates tied the game, 1-1, on Colin Moran's RBI single off Ponce de Leon in the third inning. By the end of that inning, Ponce de Leon had thrown 86 pitches to get nine outs. Moran's single came with two outs in the inning -- and on the Cardinals starter's 86th pitch of the game. When Wieters regained the lead with a sacrifice fly, the Bucs answered with Bryan Reynolds RBI double off the Clemente Wall in right field.
That scored catcher Elias Diaz, and it came against Wacha.
Munoz hits his way back into lineup, and out to center field
With three hits and a role in all three runs Sunday, Yairo Munoz forced his way into the lineup Monday as the Cardinals opened a four-game series against the Pirates at PNC Park.
Only his position was up in the air.
The ongoing rotation of Tommy Edman, Kolten Wong, and Munoz at third and second bases added an option, one that had been discussed several times in the past few weeks. Center field is now in play for Munoz. The second-year utility fielder will stat in center against Pittburgh, and it's a position that the Cardinals once thought might be Munoz's best position.
Shildt said Monday afternoon that Munoz's play Sunday and his at-bats were the reasons for keeping him in the lineup.
“More about Munoz earning the opportunity to get out there,” Shildt said. “He continues to take good at-bats, a versatile player, so getting him in the lineup, getting him out there to be able to play. He’s a very, very, very competent outfielder, and to be able to go play center field – like I said, he’s earned the opportunity to go play.”
Paul Goldschmidt returns after a partial day off. Goldschmidt did not start Sunday in the finale at Cincinnati, but he did come off the bench late to play first base for the ninth inning.
Here's the lineup that will back Daniel Ponce de Leon:
1. Tommy Edman, 3B
2. Dexter Fowler, RF
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Tyler O'Neill, LF
5. Paul DeJong, SS
6. Kolten Wong, 2B
7. Yairo Munoz, CF
8. Matt Wieters, C
9. Daniel Ponce de Leon, P
This story will be updated with game action and any news and notes that should surface during the game. For example: Batting practice for both teams was moved indoors due to inclement weather and the flooding of the infield. The Cardinals were notified there was some problem near the mound with a water pipe. That issue has been repaired, and as I type this they're out smoothing over the grass and field behind the mound.