There was a moment in Tuesday’s game, an inning or maybe two earlier than ideal but just like the Cardinals had prepped, when manager Mike Shildt made the urgent move for offense, sending the chance to lift starter Michael Wacha and turn a rally into a romp.
It didn’t pay off, not immediately.
Patience ultimately did.
The runs would come, all the Cardinals had to do was keep walking.
Pushing Milwaukee down another rung in the standings, the Cardinals turned nine walks – five from the Brewers’ bullpen and three with the bases loaded – into a 9-4 victory at Busch Stadium. The win, the Cardinals’ ninth in their past 11 games, elevated them to four games ahead of a winded and stumbling Brew Crew, and it gives them a chance to sweep the series on Wednesday at home.
Center fielder Harrison Bader, back from Class AAA Memphis as of Tuesday afternoon, drew a career-high three walks, had two diving catches, scored twice, and reached base in all four plate appearances in his first start since late July.
The first-place Cardinals, at 67-57, reached 10 games better than .500 for the first time since the 30th game of the season, on May 1.
“All these games are so important, especially in August,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “To get wins in this month is huge. To get some kind of lead against these guys is so important.”
To get a lead and extend it became the defining moments of the game for both teams and led to an eventful sixth inning that had everything but a peppy pace. By the time the inning had ended, the Cardinals and Brewers had combined to send 15 batters to the plate, score six runs total, experience two lead changes, use six different pitchers to get six outs total, and see not one pitch thrown by either pitcher who started the game. The difference in the inning was Dexter Fowler’s tie-breaking, three-run flare to shallow left field that brought Ryan Braun running in and two Brewers infielders running out until all three seemed to avoid making the catch.
The prelude to that inning came in the fourth.
The Cardinals had a 1-0 lead on Yadier Molina’s RBI single, and with two outs Bader drew the first of his three walks to load the bases for the pitcher’s spot in the order, Wacha’s spot. The righthander, pitching each start for the right to make his next start, had been superb through four innings. Shildt called him “outstanding.” Building on his starts in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, Wacha had a retro feel for his fastball and was able to wedge it into the lower reaches of the strike zone. He caught Hernan Perez looking at a 94-mph fastball slanting into the lower edge of the strike, and Eric Thames swung over a 93-mph fastball at the same spot. In the third, Yasmani Grandal watched as Molina’s mitt slurped a 93-mph fastball back to the lower edge of the zone for a called strike 3.
Geared up for that fastball, reigning MVP Christian Yelich instead got an 86-mph changeup that scooted out of the zone with Yelich’s bat chasing after it for Wacha’s fourth of five strikeouts.
“Pitching down at the knees is a pretty good game plan,” Wacha said.
The decision to lift Wacha for a pinch-hitter, Lane Thomas, in the fourth with the bases loaded stood out for how few innings Wacha had pitched, how many more pitches he had, and how well he had done with the 73 he already threw.
“Life in the National League, I guess,” Wacha said.
The availability of rookie Ryan Helsley for four or five outs, and the readiness of John Gant, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Martinez influenced Shildt’s decision to turn to Thomas. So did the potential of avoiding the best relievers, rested and looming, in the Brewers’ bullpen. Thomas stung a pitch for an out to center – and that left 15 outs for the bullpen to get.
“You’re looking at a really good at-bat, which we got, for the tradeoff of maybe over an inning that we already had, felt like we had banked,” Shildt said. “It added up to do it. I can’t do it every night and won’t do it every night. It was an opportunity to add on.”
The Brewers arrived at the same juncture in the sixth, though Craig Counsell’s decision was one inning easier. Starter Gio Gonzalez had held the Cardinals to one run through his five innings, but his pitch count was nosing toward 100 when his spot came up with two on, two outs, two runs in, and a 2-1 lead to build on. Counsell turned to Mat Gamel. The Cardinals countered with lefty Tyler Webb, who got the inning-ending strikeout and what would become his first big-league victory.
The Cardinals’ rally began with a leadoff single from Marcell Ozuna in the sixth inning and then gathered momentum through a hit batter and two base hits that didn’t get farther than the reach of an infielder.
Fowler’s flare that Braun should have caught cleared the bases because Bader was breaking from first with two outs.
“Got the carousel going,” Shildt said.
From the sixth inning, when the Cardinals retook the lead, through the seventh, they got eight runs on six hits and five walks in the span of 17 batters – all against Milwaukee’s bullpen.
Within each of the four-run rallies that did for the score what Shildt wanted with his early move on Wacha, there was Bader. On the first pitch of the game he made a lunging catch that Wacha called a “welcome him back to St. Louis.” He had a second diving catch later, and he was in the midst of all the scoring chances. After more than 20 days in the minors to find his swing and revive his confidence, Bader tripled in his first at-bat and then did what he never had in his previous 260 major-league games – accept three walks. Bader’s bases-loaded walk in the sixth tied the game, 2-2. Fowler, capping a four-RBI game, and Tommy Edman, scoring Bader, also drew bases-loaded walks in the seventh.
Like they did with the score, they are in the standings.
The Cardinals are adding on.
“We don’t plan on stopping,” Shildt said. “This is a hungry group.”