DENVER — On the brink of the homestretch toward October that could get really rocky as it decides the division title, the Cardinals conclude their schedule against lackluster teams with a stop at Coors Field and a series that features a pitching staff that appears to be as hospitable to visiting hitters as its ballpark.
Except when it isn’t.
A double negative proved positive for Colorado as a winless starter and a porous bullpen combined to hold the Cardinals to one run, scored on a groundout, in the Rockies’ breezy, 2-1 victory Tuesday night in Denver’s downtown ballpark. Colorado’s all-around All-Star Nolan Arenado did Nolan Arenado things – launching a moonshot and heisting hits – and his first-inning, two-run homer provided all the runs the Rockies needed as starter Chi Chi Gonzalez and a cast of relievers stymied the first-place Cardinals in front a partisan crowd decked in red and ready to cheer Yadier Molina. The Cardinals left six runners on base.
Three in scoring position.
Two as the potential tying run at third.
“Anytime you lose 2-1 in Colorado it’s about missed chances,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “You ask anybody in this clubhouse and we collectively had chances to do something and didn’t do that. It’s one of those you definitely want to forget about it. Very, very weird.”
Once they leave Colorado on Thursday, the Cardinals begin a sprint to the finale with 16 consecutive games against teams with winning records. The race for the National League Central shifted dramatically Tuesday night on a foul ball. Milwaukee outfielder Christian Yelich, who has been making a claim for a second consecutive NL MVP award, fractured his knee cap, and the team announced that he would miss the remainder of the regular season. A teammate told reporters in the Milwaukee clubhouse that Yelich had tears in his eyes as he learned his season had ended, right on the eve of the third-place Brewers visiting Busch Stadium for their last, firsthand shot at chewing into the Cardinals’ lead.
The Brewers’ visit begins a gauntlet of games against contenders, including a magnificent seven against the second-place Cubs, that the Cardinals (81-63) must survive to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The swing through Denver offers the Cardinals a chance to feast.
They left morsels galore behind Tuesday.
“Good, clean ballgame,” manager Mike Shildt said of the 2-hour, 36-minute show. “A little uncharacteristic of this ballpark.”
What would have been the most compelling move of the game because of the situation had some of the drama drained from it because of the month. In the fifth with the bases loaded and the pitcher’s spot due up, Shildt turned to pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter and abruptly ended Michael Wacha’s start at four innings. Expanded rosters and as many as three rested long relievers made the decision for Shildt. In July, in the first game of a series at pitcher-shredding Coors, he’d likely make a different call. But the bases were loaded, the bullpen was, too, and a bonanza can break out at any time. The Rockies entered Tuesday with a 6.41 ERA at home. The next closest team in the NL has a 5.17 ERA.
Gonzalez got his cutter in on Carpenter, a .481 hitter with the bases loaded, and the result was a soft liner to short. He then struck out Dexter Fowler to end the inning. Fowler had scored the Cardinals’ lone run on a groundout after he legged for a double in the fourth.
“Aggressive is definitely the word,” Wong said of Gonzalez. “He was able to locate that cutter backdoor really well. When you’re cutting it in and able to cut it back on it makes it tough. He was on.”
Wacha (6-7) was off only once really with his changeup, and that was enough. Arenado drilled a misplaced changeup for a two-run homer in the first inning that traveled an estimated 482 feet. The homer was his 38th of the season and the 500th extra-base hit of his career, making him the fourth Rockies player with that many, alongside former Cardinal Larry Walker.
The Cardinals continued teasing, teasing, teasing rallies that could have been, would have been jubilees at Coors, and each time Gonzalez (1-6) quieted them on his way to his first win in the majors since September 2015. When he didn’t, a reliever did. In the seventh, Bryan Shaw walked the first the batter he faced and hit the second to give the Cardinals freebies with no outs. A groundout from Tommy Edman put the tying run at third and brought reliever Carlos Estevez in to face Harrison Bader. With Paul DeJong at third and Edman at first, the Cardinals did not have Bader bunt, giving him the go-ahead to get a ball in the air and that tying run home. He had been successful in similar recent situations, and at other times the decision not to bunt has proved costly. Playing to the ballpark, the Cardinals went for the gusto.
Estevez struck out Bader. DeJong didn’t budge.
Estevez struck out pinch-hitter Jose Martinez on three pitches.
DeJong waited for someone to bring him his glove.
“Just couldn’t get that hit,” Shildt said.
One of the last spasms of offense for the Cardinals came in the top of the eighth – not with a swing or a walk but with a slide. Paul Goldschmidt, who turned 32 on Tuesday, is a longtime rival of the Rockies having spent all but this season of his career with Arizona. He knows the drill down the third-base line at Coors Field and who lurks there. He pulled a hard grounder that Arenado snagged. The throw pulled first baseman Daniel Murphy off the bag, but as he went to tag Goldschmidt the Cardinals first baseman slid, feet-first, under the tag and into first. Safe. He did not move past first.
A single in the ninth netted nothing, too, as a double play ended the game.
The Cardinals finished one-for-eight with a runner in scoring position, and all that one hit did was move a runner from second to third.
He didn’t score.
“I think all of them when you weren’t able to scratch any more runs, especially when the game’s a one-run game,” Shildt said. “We had a lot of opportunities, you know, and just weren’t able to cash in.”
More opportunities ahead.