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Snakebit! Mikolas stays sharp, but Arizona rattles off two late homers, blanks Cardinals, 2-0

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Cardinals fall 2-0 to Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks Ketel Marte sends an eighth inning ball into the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen, over the head of outfielder Dylan Carlson to take a 1-0 lead. The Diamondbacks beat the Cardinals 2-0 at Busch Stadium on Saturday, April 30, 2022. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

With Miles Mikolas and Merrill Kelly mirroring zeroes through seven fuel-efficient innings, the arc of Saturday’s game drove inevitably toward which offense could make the most from the fewest swings.

The Cardinals now are not that lineup.

Two swings in the span of six pitches during the eighth inning sent two solo home runs into the bullpens at Busch Stadium and catapulted Kelly’s Arizona Diamondbacks to a 2-0 victory and the potential for a series win Sunday. Ketel Marte hit Mikolas’ 93rd pitch of the game for his first home run of the season, and Nick Ahmed followed two batters later with a homer on Mikolas’ 98th and final pitch. The runs scarred an otherwise superb start from Mikolas that, before Marte’s homer, extended his scoreless streak to 19 consecutive innings, the longest by any pitcher in the majors this season.

And there it would have stayed, to be continued in his next outing, had manager Oliver Marmol not stuck with Mikolas. He had lefty Genesis Cabrera or right-hander Ryan Helsley warmed and ready for the eighth.

“Miles did his job. I didn’t do mine,” Marmol said. “He was really good for seven. He was at 91 pitches. We’ve got a pretty damn good bullpen. Should have gone to it.”

Any lead likely would have made the decision for him.

For the ninth time in the past 10 games, the Cardinals did not hit a home run. Kelly (2-1) limited them to two hits, both singles, and only one Cardinal reached third base. The Cardinals needed a stolen base and tag-up on a flyout for Edmundo Sosa to pull that off. Two steals and one error got Cardinals to second base, and in four at-bats with runners in scoring position they failed as a lineup to get the ball out of the infield three times. They were the local with stops galore. Arizona took the express.

Middle infielders Marte and Ahmed hit more home runs in one inning than the Cardinals outfield have hit all season, combined.

“They capitalized on it — a couple of good swings on balls late,” left fielder Corey Dickerson said. “And we could have probably had a better plan. Hard to say. Some of those first pitches we swung at we hit hard. You don’t want to take those pitches. You have a better game plan going forward as a team, individually. Definitely, games like this hinge on a mistake or two.”

The Cardinals offense has, with few exceptions, been labor-intensive. When all the gears and springs click together, the lineup can produce celebrated shows like Thursday’s with 15 singles, peerless baserunning, and a third consecutive day with two stolen bases. They can be a marvel of precision, like clockwork. But sometimes the game demands digital bluntness.

As a lineup their .244 average ranks 10th in the majors, their 111 singles are the sixth-most. And that’s the rub: The Cardinals are a singles mixer. Twenty of their past 22 hits are singles, and 84.4% of their 45 hits on this homestand are singles. Only three teams have a higher percentage of singles overall than the Cardinals’ 71.6%. (For the other four NL Central teams, 67.2% of their hits are singles.) The Cardinals, who played Saturday without Nolan Arenado as he served a one-game suspension, have five regulars with four or fewer extra-base hits so far this season.

“It’s a matter of when you look at the teams that are successful in the playoffs, there are a lot of doubles and homers being hit,” Marmol said. “When that’s not happening you have to find other ways to win. We don’t mind the 15 singles but at the end of the day, yeah, we’re going to have to drive the baseball. Do I think we will? Absolutely. That’s something we’re going to have to get going.”

In the sixth inning, Kelly hit Sosa with a pitch to put him on first with one out.

In his young career, Sosa has more hit by pitches (21) in the majors than walks (19) or extra-base hits (18). He promptly stole second for the Cardinals’ 20th consecutive successful swipe of a base — the team’s longest successful spree of thieving since 1998.

Sosa reached third on Tommy Edman’s flyout.

And there he was when Paul Goldschmidt hit a grounder to short. Ahmed scrambled in to barehand the ball and throw. The first run of the game nearly came thanks to a hit batter, a steal, a flyout, and an infield single. That’s a lot of bureaucracy for a rally. Red tape got in the way. Replay confirmed that the Cardinals came up short as Ahmed’s throw beat Goldschmidt to first for the inning’s final out.

“That’s why teams love slug,” Dickerson said. “They don’t care a lot if guys can hit .220 as long as they hit homers, because it’s hard to string together four or five singles, or multiple multiple hits. The other night we had good rallies, but you don’t see those throughout the league too often.”

A leading reason: Starts like Mikolas’.

In the right-hander’s past three starts, the Cardinals have not scored a run of support, and he hasn’t needed much. Mikolas and Kelly each finished five scoreless innings on 59 pitches, allowing one hit, striking out three, and not giving up a walk. Mikolas finished with seven strikeouts, three from striking out the side in the seventh. He hooked a 73-mph curveball past Seth Beer for a called strike three to end the inning and maintain the shutout.

“One of the things I’m getting better at and what Yadi (Molina) does so well is reading the hitter throughout the game,” Mikolas said. “That can give me an advantage late in the game.”

So one substantial hit could swing a game.

“That would be an approach if a team doesn’t think they’re going to get a lot of hits,” Mikolas said. “They might try to get a couple of big ones, like pitchers when we used to hit.”

Instead of Cabrera or Helsley for the eighth, Marmol sided with Mikolas (1-1) and planned to go hitter by hitter with that decision. One hitter into the eighth the game caved. Home runs have that impact. And nearly did for the Cardinals. After a walk and a strikeout start the Cardinals’ ninth, Dickerson lofted a ball that carried well toward the wall in right — but fell shy of tying the game.

“If you look at the team, it’s proven that they drive the baseball,” Marmol said. “It’s just a matter of time. It’s just that it’s a matter of time.”

It’s about time.

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