WASHINGTON — Through all the short starts and games of shortened offense, the Cardinals have asked their bullpen to shoulder spare innings and much more so far this young season. With the start they craved from Adam Wainwright and a slim lead thanks to the timely hitting they’ve been missing, the Cardinals finally, eagerly got a chance, in game No. 17, to utilize their bullpen strength as they always intended.
It did not go as well as they imagined.
Tasked with holding a one-run lead Tuesday after Wainwright became the first starter to complete seven innings, setup reliever Giovanny Gallegos walked the first batter he faced and hit the next with a pitch. By the time he had loaded the bases the game was tied and five Cardinals were in the infield. Gallegos walked Yan Gomes with the bases loaded to force home the deciding run in a 3-2 loss to Washington at Nationals Park.
It was one of the few times the Cardinals got to rely on relievers in their roles. It was the first time a reliever had taken a loss this season.
“First one we’ve had that got away, so to speak, late,” manager Mike Shildt said. “That’s going to happen occasionally. They don’t taste real good.”
He had no reflux, however, from the reflex to stick with Gallegos.
The Cardinals tried a little bit of everything to pull Gallegos out of the mess in the eighth inning — everything except going to closer Alex Reyes before the Nats had a lead. Gallegos has been one of the Cardinals’ most consistent relievers for years, and this past week teammate Andrew Miler argued that the righthander should be considered one of the best relievers in the league because of his called strike-3 strikeouts. Once the Nationals pulled started Patrick Corbin from the game, the Cardinals struck for two runs set up by Yadier Molina’s 10-pitch leadoff walk. Dylan Carlson scored Molina with a triple and then came home for a 2-1 lead on Austin Dean’s sacrifice fly. Gallegos took over from there.
After the first two batters reached by walk and hit by pitch, Trea Turner poked a single to right field that scored the tying run.
“Gio is a high punchout, low-walk guy,” Shildt said. “At that point it’s his game. You trust Gio. Gio has been one of our best guys for three years. I can’t hit the proverbial panic button because he’s got the stuff to get out. He comes in in jams. He’s pitching in jams. He’s in a jam — and he’s pretty much a couple pitches away from getting out of the jam.”
No buttons were pressed. But a trick was pulled.
After Turner’s game-tying single, the Cardinals brought the infield in to get the first out. That worked so well, that the Cardinals intentionally walked Kyle Schwarber to load the bases and get Gallegos a better matchup with Starlin Castro. Shildt swapped in Edmundo Sosa for center fielder Scott Hurst so that the Cardinals could play with a five-man infield — in the eighth inning of a tie game. Nationals manager Dave Martinez, who had his own pitching move to explain, said it was the “first time” he’d seen it. But it made sense. Castro is a hard-contact, groundball guy, and the Cardinals had a wall of leather to greet him.
“Put five guys in the infield and take our best shot at turning a double play with a guy who is a heavy groundball hitter,” Shildt said. “I would have been able to sleep a lot better if a groundball goes at somebody (other) than a flyball where the chances weren’t as great.”
A ball went neither.
Gallegos struck out Castro.
The five-man infield never got a chance to shape the game, and in the end the inning came down to the Cardinals not having a fourth base to put a runner. Gomes walked. The batter Gallegos hit, Josh Harrison, scored. The costliest runs reached base by walk and bruise.
“Those leadoff walks, man,” Shildt said. “They seem to haunt you.”
What made the rotation restless was its inability so far this season to provide quality starts, so many of them stuck at five innings or fewer. Jack Flaherty pitched six innings Monday, and he was the only starter through 16 games to get an out in the sixth inning. This irked the other starters, especially the veteran Wainwright. He had more pitches to give in his most recent start, but the Cardinals needed offense so his outing was trimmed short. The righthander allowed only a solo home run to Josh Bell — his first as a National — and that came in the sixth. Wainwright had struck out the previous three batters, and did so on three different pitches.
He got the first one on the curve. He ended Harrison’s streak to start the season without a strikeout in his first 30 plate appearance with a cutter Harrison swung past. And Wainwright started the sixth — his first time in the sixth — with a called strike 3 on a fastball.
“I couldn’t go another game in a row pitching five and dive,” Wainwright said. “That’s my least favorite thing in the world. I don’t like being that pitcher. That’s not a pitcher, to me. That’s a thrower. … We know, we know, we rightfully had been taking a lot of heat for not going deeper into the games. If you’re pitching five innings every time, that’s not a starting pitcher’s job. Not in my mind, anyway. Seven is not the end goal. It’s an important step.”
What Corbin did through six shutout innings and 76 pitches it took reliever Todd Rainey 12 pitches and two batters to undo.
Molina greeted Rainey with that 10-pitch walk, and Carlson hit his second triple in as many games to knot the game, 1-1. A ball in play against a draw-in infield and Dean’s sacrifice fly gave the Cardinals enough offense to get Wainwright his first win and the bullpen’s first chance to follow the script set for this season.
It flipped. But they’re not going to rewrite it.
“There’s some form of trust,” Shildt said. “You’re going to lose a lot of confidence in your bullpen if you don’t give a guy (a chance) to wiggle out of something when he’s done it basically for three years without a setback.”