ATLANTA — Before he could win the game, Dylan Carlson had to save it.
Two innings after his leaping catch in deep center field helped force a tie game into extra innings Thursday at Truist Park, Carlson put the Cardinals ahead with his third hit in a game he did not start. Carlson’s single in the 11th inning scored Nolan Arenado to take the Cardinals’ third lead of the game, and this one held. Packy Naughton closed out the 11th for a 3-2 victory against the Braves and his first save of the season.
Twice the Cardinals got a sacrifice fly to take a lead and attempt to leave Atlanta with a souvenir other than a losing streak. Each time, the tenacious Braves answered in the same inning.
By rule, Arenado started the 11th on second base. He reached third when Nolan Gorman singled to right, and that brought up Carlson to send Arenado home as the go-ahead run. The Cardinals’ outfielder pinch-hit in the seventh inning to take part in the Cardinals’ first rally, and by the end of the game he had gone 3 for 3 with a pivotal catch.
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The first half of the game was dictated by one young pitcher finding his footing in the majors and another who has announced his arrival with dominance.
Atlanta rookie right-hander Spencer Strider got his first 10 outs of the game by strikeout, and he finished the game with 12. The Cardinals struck out 18 times in the first 10 innings of the game. They got a flare double in the first inning off Strider and then not another baserunner to second base vs. the young right-hander. His fastball defied their swings, and a few times when they didn’t swing. Strider’s first and eighth strikeout of the game came on fastballs at 98.5 mph and 99.9 mph that were taken for a called strike three.
In a solid rebound outing, Cardinals rookie Matthew Liberatore pitched four scoreless innings to take the tie game to the bullpen.
And there it stayed deep into the Georgia night.
Before the teams swapped runs in the 10th inning, they did the same in the seventh as each had their chances in the ninth. The Cardinals' evaporated quickly. The Braves’ vanished dramatically.
Michael Harris II, who tied the game with a solo homer in the seventh, appeared to have the game-winning hit in the ninth when he tagged a pitch to deep left center. Carlson gave chase and made a jumping catch near the track. Harris’ liner was hit with such authority that his teammate Phil Gosselin broke from first and rounded second as Carlson made the catch. Carlson threw to Tommy Edman, and Edman’s relay beat Gosselin to first for the game-saving double play.
It was the second leaping catch in as many nights by Carlson near that same part of the field, and it was one of several defensive plays that kept the Cardinals in a game their offense could not close. In the ninth, Edmundo Sosa gloved a hotshot to third for the first out. Gorman had a spin-around throw to start a key double play in the eighth.
Pujols starts an exchange of runs in seventh
The script flipped for Albert Pujols 24 hours after being pinch-hit for with the bases loaded late in Wednesday's game. With lefty Will Smith on the mound for Atlanta and two teammates on base, Pujols got the chance to change the game with a swing — and did, with the help of a rookie’s baserunning. The first Cardinal to hit without Strider on the mound, Gorman, opened the seventh with a double off the center-field wall.
Gorman got to third on Dylan Carlson’s pinch-hit single, and that brought Pujols to the plate with no outs and the matchup the Cardinals signed him to provide.
He lined out to left.
But Gorman challenged left fielder Adam Duvall and slid home as the ball arrived to keep Atlanta from making the play. The 1-0 lead was reassuring for a team that had scored one run total in the previous 24 innings against the Braves. It, however, was fleeting.
Atlanta rookie and No. 9 hitter Harris opened the seventh with a solo homer off reliever Giovanny Gallegos to knot the game, 1-1.
Liberatore stacks zeroes, dodges dicey inning
It was not the length of start the Cardinals wish to get from their rookie left-hander but within Liberatore’s final inning was the assertive improvement they need to get.
Coming out of a disappointing start in Philly that saw his curveball float, his fastball soar, and his game over before the end of the third inning, Liberatore pitched four scoreless innings. He “hung donuts,” as pitching coach Mike Maddux likes to say — one for every inning he pitched opposite Strider. Liberatore navigated around a walk in the first inning with help from a strikeout on his curveball. In the second, he got a snazzy play from shortstop Edmundo Sosa and some inventive baserunning to erase a double.
Two strikeouts in the third inning kept the scoreless game going.
The lefty invited a fire in the fourth with familiar sparks — a leadoff walk and a missed catch in the outfield. Liberatore ushered Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud to first. Marcell Ozuna followed with a fly ball into the corner that right fielder Juan Yepez could not glove. With no outs, the Braves had runners at second and third.
They did not get the ball out of the infield.
In a spot that could have unraveled spectacularly, Liberatore held his ground. He struck out Duvall to see a way out and got two groundballs to get there. Liberatore’s 74th and final pitch was a meek grounder to first that ended the inning without d’Arnaud or Ozuna budging from their bases.
Throughout the game, Liberatore flashed an uptick in velocity — touching 96 mph and an average 1.3 mph higher than previous starts — and more misses (seven) on his breaking pitches. It was a sharp refinement from the issues he had in Philadelphia as he squandered a five-run lead.
“He lived at the top of the zone — not in a good way,” manager Oliver Marmol said of the Philly start. “Out over the plate and got hurt. He’s got to be able to command, execute his pitches to get to his other stuff and expand when needed.”
He did Thursday.
Strider’s dominant dozen overpowers Cardinals
With a mustache that masks his youth and a fastball that seems to be from the future, Atlanta rookie Strider had no reason to keep the Cardinals guessing.
They knew what was coming. Still, it overwhelmed them.
Strider’s first nine outs of the game came on the strikeouts, and by the end of the third inning he had struck out every Cardinal in the lineup except for cleanup hitter Arenado. Strider’s first 10 strikeouts of the game came on fastballs, ranging from the 98.5 mph one Brendan Donovan took for a called strike three to the 99.8 mph one Sosa swung behind to end the second inning.
The Braves’ 23-year-old right-hander did not get a strikeout on a pitch other than his fastball until the sixth inning when he got two. Both came on the slider.
Strider finished his six innings with 100 pitches and those career-high dozen strikeouts. In 18 innings, he has 30 strikeouts. The Cardinals swung at 33 of Strider’s 64 fastballs, according to Baseball Savant’s data, and they missed on 13 of them. They put six in play. Strider became the first rookie since 1900 to have back-to-back starts with at least 11 strikeouts and no more than two hits allowed, according to ESPN research.
Cool in relief, Hicks brings the heat
When he began the season as a starter and tried to build into the role, Jordan Hicks kept in his pocket that warp-speed velocity that made him such a sensation as a reliever.
“I’ll have it when I need it,” he said.
Back in relief, he can throw it when he wants it.
In his second scoreless appearance since returning from injury, Hicks blitzed the Braves for two scoreless innings of relief, and he came two tosses shy of a personal record for triple-digit pitches. Hicks threw 34 pitches total, 30 fastballs, and 27 of them left his hand at 100 mph or faster. His career-high is 29. Hicks averaged 101.4 mph on his fastball, and the right-hander touched 103.8 mph with a sinker. That is the fastest pitch thrown this season.
In the fifth inning, with a runner in scoring position, Hicks struck out Matt Olson on a slider, and then tested Austin Riley with the tabasco. Having fallen into a 2-1 count against the Braves’ third baseman, Hicks threw four consecutive sinkers, each faster than the previous one.
Riley took the ball at 101.4 mph.
He fouled off 101.6 mph and 102.2 mph sinkers.
He could not touch 103 mph.
The second of Hicks’ three strikeouts ended the inning.