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Free pass: Cardinals stumble on walks, muster one hit off Walker and usher Mets to 4-1 victory

Free pass: Cardinals stumble on walks, muster one hit off Walker and usher Mets to 4-1 victory

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A Mets team so adrift offensively that players conjured a fictional hitting guru “Donnie” a few days before firing their actual hitting coaches this week in St. Louis got a getaway day gift from the Cardinals.

No reason to search for a swing when there’s no need to take one.

The Cardinals pitchers’ walks became plenty of Mets runs.

“Eleven walks — I mean, gosh darn, you know?” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt sighed Thursday evening. “Just not a place for that.”

The Cardinals forced home three runs with bases-loaded walks in their 4-1 loss to the Mets Thursday at Busch Stadium. Three different pitchers, including starter John Gant, allowed freebie RBIs to a Mets lineup that entered the game ranked in the bottom five for both total walks and slugging percentage. Francisco Lindor, the centerpiece of the Mets’ offseason makeover and their lineup, in a zero-for-24 spiral, promptly walked three times and scored the Mets’ only run that came home on a base hit. It was their last run.

Counting on the charity of opponents is not a lasting approach, but it worked.

“I think they have some good hitters on that team and we were trying to be a little too perfect with some of our pitches,” Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner said. “They don’t chase a whole lot. … We’d like to be in the zone more. Eleven walks total — that’s not exactly what we want.”

Mets starter Taijuan Walker offered the contrast. He struck out the first three batters he faced, allowed a single in the second, and, with a pace to match his 97-mph fastball, retired the final 18 consecutive Cardinals he faced. The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead on Harrison Bader’s sacrifice fly in the second inning, and it took an infield throwing error to get Nolan Arenado in position to score. Not even a 17-minute rain delay could disrupt the righthander’s control of the game. All the walking and Walker did not issue one.

Gant put himself in persistent trouble with six walks and did not have enough command to exploit an amoebic strike zone.

The righthander did not have a clean inning, walked at least one batter in four of the five innings he started, and in the inning he didn’t the Mets got two singles. Rookie Justin Williams went over the wall to turn a foul ball into an inning-ending out that left the bases loaded in the third. Gant described some of his pitches as “noncompetitive,” and that left him exposed when he made a potentially pivotal one that kissed the lower edge of the strike zone. With the bases loaded due to an error and two walks in the fifth inning, Gant delivered a 3-2 sinker to Jonathan Villar. Knizner tried to snatch it into the lower spot of the zone that it appeared to clip. Home plate umpire Jordan Baker saw it differently. Villar saw first and forced home the tying run.

Asked if Gant felt that pitch, his last pitch, was a strike, he nodded.

“Yes, I do,” the righthander said. “Everybody has a different strike zone, you know what I’m saying? Some people call strikes strikes. Some people don’t call strikes strikes. So you’ve just got to do a better job on me of attacking hitters and throwing more quality pitches.”

Of Gant’s 98 pitches, 41 were balls. More than half of those — 24, to be precise — resulted in walks for the Mets. Six Cardinals pitchers threw a total of 192 pitches and 82 of them were balls. Each of the Mets’ eight starting position players drew at least a walk.

Due to an umpire schedule set months ago, when COVID-19 vaccine availability and travel policies were still uncertain, the Cardinals have had the same crew for 11 consecutive games to limit the umpires’ journeys. Crew chief Mark Carlson’s group has had to deal with reading the intent of several pitches that hit batters in the head, and even had Wednesday’s thorny moment when the Cardinals were allowed to make a visit to the mound not permitted by the rulebook. And yet all those innings and friction did not ignite between dugout and umps, didn’t seethe between the mound and the mask. And Gant’s feel for his pitches didn’t do anything to indicate he had a feel for that edge of the zone.

“We have all seen enough baseball — it’s hard to get a call when you’re out of the rhythm,” Shildt said. “Umpires get in rhythms, too. You’re just not going to get the benefit of the doubt if you’re not around the zone a lot, typically.”

While Walker (2-1) sped through the Cardinals’ lineup for his seven one-hit innings, Gant had to tiptoe around mousetraps of his own making. Three of his first five outs came at second base on groundballs — meaning someone had to be on base for the forceout. He didn’t pitch a clean inning in his 4 1/3 innings, but he had four scoreless innings because groundouts are baseball’s great erasers. Shildt described how “Johnny has played in a lot of traffic” and while he’s avoided pileups of runs, all the baserunners ruin the mileage he gets on his groundouts and his pitch counts. A start to staying in the rotation is reducing the walks and getting brevity from those groundballs, not rescues.

Gant (2-3) left the bases loaded for rookie reliever Kodi Whitley, who walked in a run before leaving the bases loaded. Jake Woodford, likewise, inherited the bases loaded from Tyler Webb and walked in a run in the eighth inning. Four times in the first eight innings the Mets stranded three runners, and their ongoing offensive woes were illuminated by their 17 runners left on base and going three-for-15 with runners in scoring position.

Those troubles allowed the Cardinals a ninth-inning bid to upend all of Walker’s work. Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson had back-to-back singles to bring up the Cardinals’ two best hitters as the potential tying run. Paul Goldschmidt flew out, and Nolan Arenado bounced a ball into a groundout.

“You do appreciate the ability to limit damage, stay with it, stay aggressive, stay competitive, and stay present,” Shildt said. “But it’s hard to overcome the ledger sheet with no walks vs. 11.”

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