CINCINNATI — The sting from the plays he didn’t make and the three errors he did had not yet subsided for Yairo Munoz when coach Jose Oquendo approached him that night almost a year ago and told him to report early to the ballpark the next day.
On June 6, 2018, Munoz, a rookie at the time, contributed to a blowout loss to Miami with three misplays at shortstop. He figured Oquendo had some infield drills or a pelting of groundballs planned for him, hours before first pitch. No, Oquendo said. He told Munoz that he had something else he wanted the young utility infielder to exercise.
Oquendo pointed to his head.
“The mental game,” Munoz recalled Sunday. “He told me, ‘This is a no-excuses game. No excuses.’ If you play, you play hard. No excuses.”
In a role that can be hard because he plays sparingly, Munoz continued pressing for more opportunities Sunday as the Cardinals flexed the depth of their 40-man roster all weekend and completed a series win at Cincinnati. Munoz came a double shy of a cycle in the Cardinals’ 3-1 victory against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. He played a part in all three of the Cardinals’ runs, and he widened their lead to a safer distance with a solo homer in the ninth. Munoz’s second three-hit game of the season capped a four-game series that saw rookie Tommy Edman hit a grand slam one day, prospect Andrew Knizner score the tying run the next, and reliever Giovanny Gallegos yank the Cardinals from a jam on Sunday.
Not one of the three started the year in the majors.
Two are relatively new arrivals, in part-time roles like Munoz.
“They were balling out there,” starter Jack Flaherty said. “Everybody contributed. Everybody did their job. The whole series. The whole series was fun.”
The Cardinals won their seventh game in their past nine and have started the second half of the season with three consecutive series victories. The Cardinals kept pace with the leaders in the National League Central while shoving the Reds deeper into fifth place by winning three of four. The road trip shifts Monday to Pittsburgh where the second-place Cardinals can sink the fourth-place Pirates, who they defeated a week ago in St. Louis. Stepping on teams to stand taller is how the standings work, but manager Mike Shildt stressed: “We’re going to catch the top.”
Five starters in Sunday’s lineup either began the season on the bench, in the minors, or not even on the roster, and yet most played a role in getting the Cardinals the lead. Tyler O’Neill, a spare outfielder who has shuttled between Class AAA and the majors, singled to open the second. The Cardinals, who clearly have a read on Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani, stole four bases on the righthander in the second and would have kept going had DeSclafani not figured out how to stop them. He kept them off base with a career-best 11 strikeouts. O’Neill stole the first of the four and by taking second, he avoided a possible double play and advanced to third. With him at third the Reds played the infield in. That gave Munoz room to flip a single over the second baseman’s head for a 1-0 lead.
Munoz stole third with Knizner grabbing second, and that meant Munoz could score on a groundball that got under Eugenio Suarez’s glove for a 2-0 lead.
“I prepare myself for any role Shildt wants to put me in, and when he puts me in I try to have a good game, to have a good hit so he can trust me even more,” said Munoz, with the assistance of the team’s translator. “In every situation, every position, the manager needs me, I’ll be there ready to help.”
He was asked about pinch-hitting, or late-game defense.
“Whatever,” Munoz said, in English.
And he enjoys this role?
“Bueno,” Munoz smiled.
Flaherty sped through the Reds in the bottom of the second after the Cardinals had taken the lead, but otherwise his start was laborious. In the odd innings, Flaherty never faced fewer than five Reds, and three times he had to ease free of innings with two runners on base. His pitch count mounted, and in the fifth inning, after he hit Suarez with a pitch, Flaherty faced Yasiel Puig with the bases loaded. Shildt liked the matchup of Flaherty’s slider vs. Puig’s free-swinging and stayed with his starter.
The Reds wore throwback uniforms modeled after their 1961 threads, right down to the sleeveless jerseys. Players had the choice of wearing red undershirts or flashing their arms.
Puig came to the plate all muscles, no sleeves.
“It was bear-down time,” Flaherty said.
Flaherty got ahead in the count. Puig worked his way back. And then on a 3-2 pitch, Flaherty challenged Puig with a 96-mph fastball. Puig popped up.
Shildt turned to Gallegos for the final two outs of the inning, and with the bases loaded he struck out both batters he faced. This season, Gallegos has stranded 25 of the 28 runners he’s inherited, and on Sunday he added two more strikeouts in a scoreless sixth. The series win hung on performances like Gallegos’, some pivotal and some just necessary. All three runs Sunday were scored by bench players thrust into starting jobs by injuries. Edman wasn’t even on the 40-man roster on June 1, and yet his grand slam was the difference Thursday, he scored twice in the 10-run inning Friday, and he had three-hits Saturday. Ryan Helsley wasn’t in the majors Friday and was gone by Sunday, but on Saturday he pitched two scoreless innings to help steady an overtaxed bullpen.
The Reds halved the Cardinals’ lead with a solo homer in the eighth off lefty Andrew Miller. But after seeing two breaking pitches for balls in the ninth from Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, Munoz expected a fastball and drove it into the left-field seats.
No excuses needed.
Play hard and it makes it harder for the team not to play him.
“Let me tell you something,” Jose Martinez said. “'Moony’ goes out there and challenges himself every single time to do something better. They give you an opportunity, go take advantage. He does that. Defense? He plays everywhere. You need a bomb? He hits it. You need a bunt? He hustles. He goes out there and plays hard every single time.”