SAN FRANCISCO • About the only thing rookie Jack Flaherty nudged a little too far in his debut Friday night was a disagreement with his manager about the quality of his stuff.
Mike Matheny said his stuff looked “good.”
Flaherty shook his head, kept saying it was “really bad.”
They went back and forth like this in the dugout until the manager, five more innings of a game to run and a rally to conjure, put an end to it.
“That’s when I told him I was going to get the last word,” Matheny said. “The stuff looked good. The execution was poor at times. And there is a lot of room for improvement. But the stuff looked good. And the stuff is going to play here. I need him to know that.”
Down by three runs when Flaherty exited his first big-league start, it took a little time and a whole mess of relievers from San Francisco but eventually the Cardinals would give the righthander the gift of a no decision. The Cardinals scored nine runs in the final three innings off six different relievers for an 11-6 romp Friday night against the Giants at AT&T Park.
Stephen Piscotty crushed a two-run homer in the ninth to turn what was a tight game into a rout. Greg Garcia’s triple tied the score in the eighth, and Dexter Fowler’s triple set up what would be the go-ahead run in ninth.
And way back toward the beginning, when Flaherty’s stuff was better than he insisted, fellow rookie Harrison Bader socked his first big-league homer.
“I think when you get called up you just kind of want to get the firsts out of the way – your first hit, your first bag, whatever it is,” Bader said. “Once you get those first humps out of the way, you can really just relax. Then you shoot for the second, the third, and the 100th. Once you get that one swing – phew – a little monkey off your shoulder.”
The win, the Cardinals’ third in four games on this road trip, kept inching them forward in the National League wild-card race. They gained a game on the Colorado Rockies and kept pace with the division-leading Cubs, who have won five consecutive. Just as important, the Cardinals now have a chance to take a series from a lesser team. The Giants are creeping toward 100 losses, and the Cardinals’ two-city swing through California is fertile ground for wins. At the same time, the Cardinals have turned areas of the roster over to youth.
Bader started in center Friday because Tommy Pham had a swollen thumb, and Bader scored twice and reached base three times. He, like Randal Grichuk and Piscotty, is playing to make an impression for 2018 – and all Piscotty did was have three hits, two RBIs, and almost keep pace with Grichuk, who homered for his third time in as many days. Rookie Paul DeJong added a two-run double in the ninth and Garcia, the fill-in at third, tripled one the game-tying run after the Cardinals had twice failed before to connect on such a pivotal hit.
“A team that never quits and you put in some young exciting talent with some veteran experience?” Matheny said. “That’s a hard team to beat.”
Though, it’s going to need pitching.
Added to the roster Friday afternoon and starting that night in place of traded Mike Leake, Flaherty made a slick first impression. He got a strike with his first pitch. He struck out the first batter he faced. By the time he dispatched the third batter of his big-league career, he had two strikeouts and a perfect inning. His two strikeouts came on off-speed pitches. If only the rest of the Giants’ lineup was as hospitable.
• BOX SCORE: Cardinals 11, Giants 6
• STANDINGS: Cards 6 behind in NL Central
• WILD CARD: Cards trail by 4 with 28 games left
While Flaherty had little trouble at the fringes, the cluster of hitters in the middle of the order – an island of production surrounded by one of the NL’s least imposing lineups – flipped his start. The trio of All-Stars, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Hunter Pence combined to go six-for-six with five runs and three extra-base hits against Flaherty. The rest of the Giants’ lineup went two-for-14 (.143) with only one RBI.
The rest of the lineup struck out six times.
Posey, a former NL MVP, set up both rallies against Flaherty with singles. Crawford followed each time with an extra-base hit, including a two-run homer in the second inning for the first lead of the game. Flaherty misplaced a curveball and saw it swoop right to the barrel of Crawford’s bat. Kiss. Gone. Pence had a two-run triple in the third after Crawford’s double and that regained the Giants’ three-run lead.
“I made mistakes over the middle to the middle of the order,” Flaherty said.
His fastball had good life and arrived at about 94 mph, steadily, but he didn’t have the command of it. He leaned heavily on his slider, didn’t feature his changeup much, and showed an improved curve – at times. That was close to the scouting report pitching coach Derek Lilliquist gave before the game, right down to the times. The Cardinals trailed 5-2 when Flaherty yielded to the bullpen and the Cardinals asked John Gant to fill some innings. Giants starter Johnny Cueto didn’t last much longer, bowing in the middle of the sixth.
The runs he allowed both came on Bader’s swing, but when Cueto hit Bader in the sixth and allowed a single to DeJong, Giants manager Bruce Bochy went quickly to his bullpen, which had been repopulated by September's expanded rosters. He used five relievers to get the next five outs from the Cardinals, and there would be 11 total players to appear in the ninth spot of the Giants’ order. From the moment Cueto left the game and Bochy started maneuvering through his bullpen, the game was a simple race to whichever ran out first: Giants relievers or Cardinals outs.
The bullpen blinked.
Grichuk’s homer in the seventh cut the lead to a run. Off closer Mark Melancon, who needs surgery to repair an injury he’s pitching through, Piscotty singled and Garcia followed with the triple and 5-5 game. The Cardinals would score five more runs off the next reliever, Sam Dyson, before Bochy made his eighth and final pitching move of the game.
“You’ve got to turn those things into a positive for yourself,” Bader said of the merry-go-round of relievers. “Maybe you don’t have much information on them, so you think less. You simplify your load, and here we go.”
Tyler Lyons worked a scoreless eighth to snag the win, but it was Gant’s two scoreless innings immediately after Flaherty that stabilized the game. He retired the middle of the Giants’ order and their nine combined All-Star Game selections in order.
• CARDS TALK: Fans discuss Flaherty's debut
Flaherty began the season at Class AA and will end it as part of a rotation that has been infused with youth for the stretch run. His performance for Triple-A Memphis was part of why the Cardinals decided they’d rather have him start than Leake – and learn where Flaherty could fit into the rotation as soon as 2018. When he threw his first pitch Friday night he was already part of history. The first-pitch temp was 93 degrees, nine degrees hotter than the previous high for a night game at AT&T Park.
Matheny didn’t believe it when he was told.
He said in the dugout, the Cardinals, used to the skillet of St. Louis in the summer, were talking about how nice the weather felt, how comfortable. There was no disagreement there, and eventually, after seeing the team rally and even getting some pointers from teammates, Flaherty saw things Matheny’s way, too. The stuff was good. The execution wobbled. The results followed.
“This one is over, and it’s on to the next outing,” Flaherty said. “Try to build off the good and change a little bit of the bad.”