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Division lead in jeopardy after Cardinals hit a pothole at end of their trip

Division lead in jeopardy after Cardinals hit a pothole at end of their trip

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Cardinals catcher Matt Wieters looks for a wild pitch to Christian Walker during the Diamondbacks' seven-run sixth inning Wednesday. (AP Photo)

PHOENIX — What the Cardinals lost a few hours before dawn Wednesday as a 19-inning, record-setting, nearly seven-hour ultramarathon finally came to an end was only the beginning.

The ramifications of how the Cardinals stayed in that game before ultimately falling to Arizona caught up with them later that afternoon and could yet send fissures through the standings. At the end of a trip in which they seized control of the National League Central, their grip loosened considerably during a costly 9-7 loss Wednesday afternoon to the Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

With a first pitch less than 10½ hours after they left the ballpark that morning, manager Mike Shildt chose to unleash his “Bench Mafia” and started only one regular, Tommy Edman. His commitment to getting everyday players a breather after playing the entirety of the 19-inning slog was so certain that it took a ninth-inning rally to bring Paul Goldschmidt up as a pinch-hitter. The four leading home run hitters on the roster combined to take one at-bat, Goldschmidt’s, in the final road game of the regular season.

A bullpen thinned by throwing 12 innings one day had to suddenly cover 7 1/3 innings Wednesday, after Michael Wacha left in the second inning because of a shoulder injury.

Despite an early lead and rookie Randy Arozarena’s incandescence, the adrenaline, the pitching, the offense and even the defense wore out. Arizona capitalized on two errors and two relievers for a seven-run inning that flipped the game and won the series.

“There was nothing about today’s game that indicated we weren’t all-in. Zero. Nothing,” manager Mike Shildt said when asked about the regulars remaining on the bench. “People can have an opinion on what all-in looks like. That’s perfectly fine. But I can tell you this: We went out and we scored seven runs. We had a chance for the go-ahead run in Paul Goldschmidt at the plate eight hours after we just played a seven-hour game, being on the road, and after 16 straight (games). If you’re wanting more than that, I’d like to see you conjure it up.

“That’s a Herculean effort by our group.”

This weekend will reveal if it was Sisyphean.

The Cardinals spent their last trip pushing their way to the peak of the National League Central only to reach the regular season’s final off day with Milwaukee rolling up on them. The Brewers’ victory in Cincinnati on Wednesday moved them 1½ games back of the first-place Cardinals. If the Cardinals (90-69) and Brewers (88-70) tie, a game to decide the division champ will be played Monday at Busch Stadium; the loser gets a wild-card berth. The Cardinals’ magic number to clinch the division title froze at three. They have three games remaining, all at home this weekend, all against the Cubs.

To not need help cinching the division, the Cardinals must sweep.

That’s how the trip started — with an emphatic sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Cardinals’ 5-2 trip included the first four-game sweep at the Friendly Confines since 1921. All four games were decided by one run; the Cardinals won three in their last at-bats. They played the longest nine-inning game (by time) in Wrigley Field history, and a few days later outdid that with the longest game by innings and by time in Chase Field history. The Cardinals managed two solo homers in Tuesday’s game only to botch the 1-0 lead in the ninth and lose in the 19th, 3-2. The Cardinals used 10 relievers in the game. Eight starters played all 19 innings.

Shildt asked only infielder Edman to make the turnaround to start again.

“I get it. People are going to have an opinion, which is what’s so wonderful about this game,” Shildt said. “The opinion is going to be, well, you’re going to run these guys into the ground. The opinion is going to be, well, what are you doing, how come these guys (didn’t play)? Freshness is important in this game. We know guys are going to grind and they’re going to compete and this group has done it and wouldn’t shy from it. You play a seven-hour game, at some point you’ve got to take care of your guys a little bit. So we did just that.”

Arizona manager Torey Luvollo said the extra-inning game “escalated quickly and at points in time you’re flying by the seat of your pants.”

He used matchups to replace some regulars, got a game-tying homer and a game-winning single from Ildemaro Vargas off the bench, and was able to go back to four regulars to start Wednesday’s game.

“No perfect science,” he said. “We want to put the best product out there to make the race as uncomfortable for the Cardinals as we can.”

The first two Diamondbacks scored for a quick 2-0 lead on Wacha before stiffness in his right shoulder ejected him from the game in the second. Shildt said the “Bench Mafia” was “not hiding in the shadows today, they’re announcing themselves with authority.” And they did. Edmundo Sosa’s leadoff walk was followed by Jose Martinez’s two-run double to tie the game. In the fourth, Arozarena stole second, reached third and saw a pickoff throw get away from the first baseman. So, he stole home for a 3-2 lead. The theft of home was a first by a Cardinal since 2012, when Pete Kozma did so.

Arozarena said it was the first time he ever swiped home.

“It has to be the right move at the right time,” he said.

Starting in center, Arozarena threw out a runner at third base in the bottom of the fifth and then hit his first big-league homer to lead off the sixth. The replacements and the relievers had a 5-2 lead with four innings between them and a charter flight home. They didn’t get out of the sixth before turbulence. Rookies Genesis Cabrera and Junior Fernandez combined to get two outs in the inning but allowed six runs on three hits and two walks. Matt Wieters’ error on a catch at home allowed the tying and go-ahead runs to score. Arizona added two more on a two-run homer by Wilmer Flores.

“A couple of non-plays, a couple of plays we normally make, a couple of balls found some holes,” Shildt said. “We had the ability to get through it. Just couldn’t overcome a sloppy inning.”

Late in the game, the heft of the Cardinals’ usual lineup gathered nearer and nearer Shildt in the dugout. There were 109 homers available in Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler, Paul DeJong and Marcell Ozuna, who has struggled. Shildt didn’t use one to pinch-hit for Sosa with two on in the eighth. In the ninth, with a $250-million bench still available, Shildt had Goldschmidt ready for the pitcher’s spot in the order. That spot was due up sixth.

He was willing to go the entire game without that group taking a swing.

Martinez’s third hit of the game extended the inning and Wieters’ two-run single put the tying run on base. Goldschmidt got the last at-bat of the game and grounded into a double play.

This trip put them on the brink of a division title. It also pushed them to a breaking point.

“We were ready to go,” Goldschmidt said. “They played a little bit better than us. Maybe made one more pitch, one more hit. We’re used to it. We’re ready to go.”

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