Magic numbers become more magic when they reach single digits. The Cardinals’ magic number dropped to nine Saturday with a day-night twin bill sweep of the Cincinnati Reds here, meaning any combination of Cardinals wins and Milwaukee Brewers defeats totaling nine will give the locals the National League Central Division crown.
And there was a little magic at work, too, in the nightcap when the Cardinals somehow won the game 1-0 in 11 innings despite striking out 17 times in the regulation nine innings with rookie Hunter Greene accounting for 11 of them as he threw a record (breaking his own) 46 pitches at 100 miles an hour or better.
“We obviously didn’t muster anything against him,” said Nolan Arenado, one of two Cardinals not to strike out against Greene (Corey Dickerson was the other).
“As good as we’ve seen this year,” said Paul Goldschmidt, who whiffed four times, three against Greene.
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Cardinals lefthander Jose Quintana provided part of the magic as he pitched his best game of the season, holding the Reds to two hits in eight innings. He extended his Cardinals record to nine games at the start of his career with them in which he allowed two earned runs or fewer. He carried two games with him like that from Pittsburgh before he was traded here.
“I felt my style was really good today,” said Quintana. “I was ‘painting,’ down and away and up and in.
“Breaking ball was great and ‘Kiz’ (Andrew Knizner) called a great game. We were on the same page right away. I was really happy to make my best effort to help get the (win).”
The Cardinals are 8-1 in Quintana’s nine starts. But he has had Greene’s number before, so to speak.
On May 15, Greene pitched 7 1/3 no-hit innings at Pittsburgh and the Reds didn’t allow a hit through eight innings but lost 1-0 to the Pirates, whose starter was Quintana.
“That’s bad luck for him,” said Quintana, smiling. “Two in a row.”
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said, “(Quintana) was unbelievable. Used his fastball extremely well. Blew some guys up inside. A lot of weak contact.”
Arenado said, “He isn’t afraid of anybody.”
The shutout was the Cardinals’ first in extra innings since 2010 and the win was their second this year when they had fanned 17 times, the other coming in Atlanta on July 7.
The Cardinals got a break from the Reds’ defense in the 11th inning after Knizner had popped up into a double play in the 10th.
Goldschmidt had a part in delivering the only run on a grounder to center fielder Nick Senzel, who was playing third in the five-man infield defense with the bases loaded and nobody out.
Goldschmidt said he didn’t hit the ball that hard as Senzel, playing close, made a diving stop but his throw home hit Knizner, headed for the plate, in the left elbow and rolled away. Reds catcher Austin Romine, the former Cardinal, initially argued that Knizner had interfered with the throw.
There is no appeal or replay available to a team in such a spot and Reds manager David Bell didn’t dispute the call.
“I mean, it's an emotional game,” said Bell. “We just played a really tough game. You lose the game on a play like that and our players react to that. I have no problem at all with how anyone on the field handled it. But as far as the rule goes, my understanding is that it was a legal play. I still haven't actually seen it so this is just the interpretation from the people in here watching on video so I will check it out closer.”
Romine said, “Runner creates his lane on the outside of third base. I moved to the inside to field the throw. ‘Senzie’ throws the ball. Runner veers off into the fair territory a couple of feet. Gets hit. As far as I was told by the umpires, that’s legal.”
But Senzel said, “I thought he was out of the baseline. You could see that his footprint (was) in the grass. But you know, a lot going on.”
Knizner talked of how the Cardinals runners are taught to take that inside lane en route to the plate but admitted he was taking his cue from where Romine set up. “It’s something we’ve talked about, especially ‘Goldy,’ With that throw coming from the third baseman, you’re just trying to get in his line of fire. It’s no different than running in a rundown. You’re trying to run at the guy," said Knizner.
Knizner said he hadn’t decided whether or not he was going to slide, because it was a force play and not a tag play. I was just hoping (Senzel) would hit me or throw it away,” said Knizner.
“I have to set my base path and run right where Romine was—to mess with the throw as much as I could.”
The Cardinals had had roughly the same play in the field the night before but Arenado had zipped a throw over the runner and into the mitt of Knizner, who applied a tag. “I’m not really sure how he does it,” said Marmol. “Off one knee?”
Marmol said, “To be able (for Knizner) to pull it off right there, that's the perfect play. You come into spring training and create an identity for what you want to be known for, and how you want to be described. This group wanted to be sure opponents viewed us as relentless. But, in other words, smart. That was smart baseball.
"In order to get to where we want to get to, you have to find different ways to win. Today we faced some pretty good pitching in that second game. Be able to find a way."
Knizner said there was no doubt Goldschmidt would find a way after four strikeouts.
“The whole stadium (sellout crowd of 48,299) is chanting MVP,” said Knizner. “That's the guy we want in that situation.”
One of the oddities stemming from the automatic runner on second in extra innings is that the hitter who messed up the previous inning, suddenly is carrying the game in his hands as a base runner in the next inning.
“I decided this was my chance to help the team win,” said Knizner.
At least one teammate thought Knizner had taken too much of an inside line. “That was crazy. That was a lot,” said the player. “I can’t believe they didn’t overturn it.
“But he established inside.”
With Knizner at second, Brendan Donovan walked against Fernando Cruz, who had started for the Reds the previous night. Tommy Edman, sacrificing, beat out a bunt when Cruz hesitated before throwing to first. That loaded the bases for Goldschmidt.
The Cardinals, who had only four sacrifices all season, were bunting dervishes Saturday. Alec Burleson bunted for one of the four hits Greene allowed. Ben DeLuzio sacrificed a runner to third in the 10th although the Cardinals didn’t score. And Edman was trying to sacrifice in the 11th.
All this is for a team whose manager generally abhors a bunt.
The winning pitcher was Steven Matz, who wasn’t even on the roster in the afternoon for the 5-1 first-game win but was taken off the injured list when right-hander Jordan Hicks had to be placed on the IL with arm fatigue and neck spasms.
Matz, who has recovering from a torn ligament in his left knee, retired all three men he faced in the top of the 11th, stranding a runner at third. Marmol said he hadn’t planned to employ Matz in a high-leverage spot immediately but he wanted to keep left-handed pinch hitters Jake Fraley and Alejo Lopez tethered to the bench.
“This was a good one to get under my belt,” said Matz, normally a starter but who will have to adjust to being a reliever for the rest of this season.
“I think it would be cool,” he said. “I think tonight was kind of a good little… I don’t know what you want to call it. .. but (it was good) just to be able to get my feet wet, just to see a bigger pressure situation.”
Matz had driven in Saturday morning from Des Moines, Iowa, where he was on a rehab option with Memphis.
Hicks, however, doesn’t appear to be seriously hurt, said Marmol.
“No one is overly concerned,” said Marmol, “but at the same time we wanted to make sure he got the proper rest. It made sense to do it.”
The Cardinals had missed a huge chance in the 10th when they had the bases loaded with one out facing a five-man Reds infield. Knizner looped a popup to short left center where shortstop Jose Barrero and left fielder TJ Friedl converged on the ball.
At the last instant, Friedl snatched the ball from Barrero and fired home to get Dickerson, who had tagged up and headed for home, with third-base coach “Pop” Warner perhaps thinking that Barrero, who would have a tougher play, would catch the ball. Dickerson was cut down.
The Cardinals’ two triumphs gave them 51 at home for the season, one more than the New York Yankees, for most in the majors. They have won a club-record 20 games on Saturday and the sweep pushed them a season-high 27 games over .500.
The magic number is nine.
“There’s first time for everything, right?” said Arenado. “This is the first time I was ever in a position to win the division, so this is pretty cool.”