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St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha pitches during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

NEW YORK — Running wild and unchecked inning after inning, the Cardinals had no trouble stealing second Saturday against the Mets and getting into scoring position.

It was pulling off the heist of the game that proved trickier.

A flare into right field gave the Cardinals a chance to score the game-tying run. Pitcher Jack Flaherty, recast as a pinch-runner for Yadier Molina, was sent home as the Mets failed to make the catch in right. Second baseman Jeff McNeil recovered in time to throw the ball home and get Flaherty a step before he tied the game. The play allowed the Mets to escape with a 8-7 victory.

The Mets drilled starter Michael Wacha for five runs, added two late runs against the Cardinals’ bullpen, and then fended off whatever rally the Cardinals threatened, right up until those final few feet. The Cardinals stole six bases in a game for the first time since May 1999, and four of those steals in the late innings gave the Cardinals repeated cracks at tying the game. They left the bases loaded in the eighth – the tying run on second – and got the tying run on base in the ninth, and they even go the base hit from Kolten Wong that appeared to be enough to knot the game, 8-8. Not.

Wacha allowed six runs total in his four innings and left the Cardinals’ lineup an uphill climb from the first inning. The Cardinals chipped away at Mets starter Noah Syndergaard for five runs, scored three runs in the seventh inning, and yet never led except for a fleeting moment in the first inning on Dexter Fowler’s solo homer. Mets closer Edwin Diaz, who botched Thursday’s game against the Cardinals, allowed a run in the ninth and a total of three hits. After Molina’s RBI single, he was replaced at first by Flaherty. The pitcher rounded third and headed home on Wong’s flair, but the throw beat his slide.

The game was dotted with hit batters and by delays for injuries, from an umpire who struggled to hold down the contents of his stomach to Yadier Molina flexing the fingers on his left hand. In the third inning, with Fowler at the plate, home plate umpire Brian O’Nora stepped back as if to catch his breath. He had been socked near the groin by a foul ball earlier in the inning, and it appeared like queasiness got the best of O’Nora.

He left the field, a towel pressed to his mouth.

Chad Whitson took over at first.

In the sixth inning, a foul ball clipped the Cardinals’ catcher and left him kneeling behind home plate with a trainer and manager Mike Shildt. Molina flexed and massaged his left hand and remained in the game. He even reached into his back pocket with the injured hand to review a checklist of some type before making the next pitch, and he attempted to throw aggressively behind the runner to second to steal an out. The two runs the Mets scored in that inning against lefty rookie Genesis Cabrera proved important because of the last injury delay of the game: Syndergaard’s.

The blond-haired starter known around Flushing Meadows as Thor grabbed at his right hamstring in the top of the seventh inning. The Cardinals had just stolen their fifth base of the game and Jose Martinez was at the plate. Syndergaard was removed from the game due to the injury, leaving it to the bullpen with a five-run lead. It wasn’t safe. The two runners Syndergaard left behind in the inning scored, and before a lineout became a double play the Cardinals had the tying run at the plate twice in the inning. Syndergaard allowed five runs (four earned) through his six innings, and he struck out five.

The last of the two runs he allowed came when Matt Carpenter doubled home Yairo Munoz and Fowler singled home Martinez. Carpenter scored on a sacrifice fly from Paul Dejong that gave the Cardinals a three-run jag immediately after Syndergaard left the game. In the two previous games of the series – both wins by the Cardinals – the Cardinals rallied each time against the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen. They had eight runs in the eighth inning or later in the first two games, and Syndergaard’s injury invited a similar rally Saturday.

A single and two walks put the tying run in scoring position in the eighth inning, and loaded the bases for Carpenter, one of the game’s best with the bases loaded.

Carpenter fell behind Seth Lugo 0-2, took a pitch outside, and then teed up on the 1-2 pitch. He missed – to end the inning and drop his bases-loaded average down to .500 (25-for-50).

The Cardinals didn’t have to excavate too deep into the box scores from Wacha’s past two appearances to find proof of improvement. A breezy 2 1/3-inning appearance in relief was followed by six scoreless inning as a starter against Miami, and in each case the Cardinals saw what they had not in May from their righthander. The giddyup was back in his fastball and the get-down was back on his changeup. He got 14 groundballs from the Marlins and did so with that steep, downward angle back on his pitches.

He laced elements of each appearance with reassurance.

“He was commanding the baseball,” Shildt said. “Everything looked synched up with his mechanics. He was able to repeat his pitches. He was down with some life. And he had his signature changeup going. He was getting a lot of groundballs down, a lot of soft contact again, hitting with the changeup. That’s vintage Michael Wacha.”

That same touch, that signature changeup, or that vintage feel did not follow him from South Florida to Queens. Before he could get a second out of the game, the Mets had a 4-0 lead and had placed five runners on base. Four batters into the game, Wacha left a 3-1 pitch up in the zone and Mets rookie Pete Alonso mashed it for the longest home run hit by a Met this season. Alonso’s three-run shot traveled an estimated 458 feet.

A single and a double followed Alonso’s homer and by the time Wacha got a second out on a sacrifice fly the Mets had a 5-1 lead. It took him nearly half of his 72 pitches to get through nine Mets in the first inning.

Davis added a homer in the second inning before Wacha held the reins of his game.

In four innings, Wacha allowed six runs (five earned) on seven hits and one walk. The dud comes at a vulnerable time for the Cardinals. They don’t have an off day for another week yet, and their rotation is already down Adam Wainwright (hamstring) and auditioning fill-ins. Genesis Cabrera reliever Wacha on Saturday and encountered turbulence. Alex Reyes is trying to find his control at Class AAA Memphis, and Daniel Ponce de Leon is in the majors and available to make Wednesday’s start. Another shift in the rotation would require a second candidate to join the ranks, as baseball’s swap meet season and the Cardinals’ interest in acquiring a starter is only starting to percolate.

***

As Cardinals face Thor, Goldschmidt takes a breather, Carpenter gets first base

With the season's longest road trip (by days) almost over and the season's longest road trip (by flight time) on the horizon, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt plotted with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt an ideal day for him to get a break. This Saturday in Queens against burly Mets starter Noah Syndergaard seemed like an advantageous day off to play, and so they did.

Would the rotation be as obvious to script.

Daniel Ponce de Leon, coming off four innings of work Friday night in a win, remains with the team and that gives him an edge to make the next start when the turn comes up Wednesday against Miami. (Alex Reyes, manager Mike Shildt acknowledged Saturday, remains a candidate, too.) Ponce de Leon made his case, and that's what Michael Wacha has done as well. After a stint in the bullpen that was cut short by the team's need, Wacha makes his second start. He gets it because of how his first start went, and if there's a third consecutive start this evening will have something to do with it. There's not the scripting of days for the rotation, not like a day off for Goldschmidt, but with each passing start the pitchers earn the next one.

Goldschmidt yields first base to Matt Carpenter, and Yairo Munoz gets the start at third base.

Adam Wainwright, on the injured list with a hamstring strain, is set to throw a bullpen Monday.

The Cardinals returned Dominic Leone to Class AAA Memphis on Saturday morning after the righthander had served as the team's 26th man for Friday night's game.

Here's the lineup the Cardinals will use to try to win their third consecutive game and their second consecutive road series:

1. Matt Carpenter, 1B

2. Dexter Fowler, RF

3. Paul DeJong, SS

4. Marcell Ozuna, LF

5. Yadier Molina, C

6. Kolten Wong, 2B

7. Harrison Bader, CF

8. Yairo Munoz, 3B

9. Michael Wacha, P

The Cardinals' game notes point out that June 15 is the anniversary of the Cardinals dealing for Lou Brock and the Cardinals trading Keith Hernandez to the Mets. Those are two of the mots defining trades in club history. One sent an MVP elsewhere, and the other brought a Hall of Famer in from the north side.

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.