With so much baseball overstuffed into one home stand, when they weren’t busy blanking opponents or teasing no-hitters young starters Dakota Hudson and Jack Flaherty had plenty of time together in the dugout and could always find plenty to talk about. If not chatting over the game they’re watching, they’ve been known to discuss music, the “Game of Thrones” finale, and even preferred Batman villains. Flaherty claims Joker.
Recent conversations have steered toward the topic du jour in the clubhouse, fantasy football, and they never, never veer into the subject staring back at them:
What’s possible if they keep silencing opponents.
“It’s not about what we can do. It’s about doing what you have to do in the moment,” Hudson said. “We talk about anything, really, but if you get outside of the moment then that’s where you start maybe not focusing on that one pitch that could be the one that gets you out of the big inning, or your next start. Try to keep the focus on the right now, right here.”
Emphasis on here.
With Hudson handling six shutout, one-hit innings, the Cardinals punctuated a rambunctious week at Busch Stadium with a 10-0 victory Thursday against San Francisco. The win assured that the first-place Cardinals (79-61) would increase their lead on one rival, either the third-place Brewers or second-place Cubs, who played each other Thursday night. Both of those teams have visits remaining this season to Busch, where the Cardinals have reasserted something the team has been talking about in recent years: a lack of home-field advantage.
The Cardinals won six of eight games in six days at home. They’ve won 16 of their past 19 home games, 22 of their 30 home games since the All-Star break, and they lost once – just once – at home the entire month of August. And that was a rain-shortened, disputed loss to Milwaukee. With nine home games remaining in the regular season – all of them against contending teams, six against division rivals – the Cardinals already have won more games at home (46) than they have since 2015. Not coincidentally, that was also their last playoff appearance.
“You’ve got to win at home,” catcher Yadier Molina said. “That’s the No. 1 key. We have to have that advantage against the other team, and the last couple of years, the last three years, we didn’t have that advantage here. To have it this year, makes the difference.”
The home stand was dotted with feats and milestones, glaring highlights and subtler turns, two doubleheaders in two days, and one infield single that started at least 10 feet foul before spinning onto fair ground. Paul DeJong’s two-run homer in the first inning Thursday pushed Hudson (15-6) and the Cardinals ahead early and for good while also setting a new club record for Cardinals shortstops at 26 homers. Molina extended his hitting streak to 12 games with an RBI single in the third that tied him with the Cardinals’ most famous shortstop, Ozzie Smith, for hits as a Cardinal, at 1,944. Molina also caught his sixth shutout since returning from the injured list a month ago.
Hudson flipped a two-run single to right for his first two RBIs in the majors and what pitching coach Mike Maddux calls “niner production” from the No. 9 spot. Randy Arozarena stole his first big-league base in the second inning and Rangel Ravelo hit his first big-league homer in the eighth. His two-run bolt came complete with his first curtain call.
The win on Thursday, the biggest shutout against the Giants since the Cardinals hosted them in 1963 at Sportsman’s Park, was an emphatic, busy conclusion to a home stand rich with such moments. Marcell Ozuna snapped loose of a funk with a solo homer Tuesday that was the only run Flaherty needed as he toyed with a no-hitter. Tommy Edman excelled as a regular with four extra-base hits in his past two games and he scored six runs on the home stand. Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong secured their places atop the batting order that averaged better than five runs a game and hit .295 (23-for-78) with runners in scoring position. From the challenge of the five games in 51 hours came a crystallized lineup and a clarity of roles.
“That was a heckuva a home stand,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We have been able to establish Dexter at the top with Kolten, and then kind of go from there. We got Yadi back. We got Ozuna back. So I think that’s probably a big part of the gelling, so to speak. Established those guys at the top and have those strong presences back in the lineup as well. Guys are enjoying playing.”
And at the core has been two guys assessing comic-book villains.
The Cardinals got six quality starts from the rotation on the home stand and won all six games. As a group, they had a 2.27 ERA in six starts and had more strikeouts (35) than hits and walks combined (33). Remove Michael Wacha’s scripted short-rest start, and the starters in the other seven games averaged 6 ½ innings per appearance. The starters did not allow a run in their 25 innings against the Giants.
Hudson was the only starter to draw two, normal-rest starts on the home stand and he won both with only four runs allowed on five hits in 13 2/3 innings. The one hit he allowed Thursday to the Giants came in the second inning and resulted in the one Giant reaching second base against him. Otherwise, he sped through San Francisco’s diluted lineup. At first, Hudson played to the home dimensions by getting fly outs, and then without a feel for his off-speed pitches he downshifted for grounders. Fourteen of his 18 outs came within the reach of an infielder, only two on strikeouts.
“If you can’t adjust you’re going to have those blowup games,” Hudson said. “That’s where I’m learning. It’s to go out there sometimes and now have what you expect to have and still have to go out there and grind and produce for your team. Try to do what I do. Ground balls is what I do. So it’s not a bad fallback plan. Swings and misses – that’s a plus for the day.”
Hudson talked about his start Thursday while wearing a shirt that read, “#DONTTHINK.” It’s Flaherty’s motto. His initials were printed inside the design on Hudson’s shirt, and the two words are stitched on his cleats: Don’t (left), Think (right). Flaherty passed out the t-shirts to teammates, and the philosophy has spread. Hudson has talked to him about it, and come away thinking the message is “trust myself.”
It’s a when a starter pitches like that, like Hudson has, that Flaherty and him find their dugout talks really meander afield.
“If a guy is cruising, our conversations can go in any direction,” Hudson said. “Try to keep it fun. Random conversations.”
He was asked if he could offer an example.
“No,” he smiled. “No, no.”