ST. LOUIS — Yadier Molina took a 94 mph fastball in the side and somehow managed to turn toward his teammates and do two quick fist pumps, apparently before the pain had time to reach his brain. His teammates poured out of the nearby dugout and enveloped him by the time he reached first base. The scrum spilled into shallow right field.
You’d think a team that still harbors World Series aspirations might not celebrate an early-August gift win against a last-place team so wildly, but this was a moment for a long, deep exhale. The St. Louis Cardinals beat back some dangerously creeping self-doubt about the quality of their pitching with their wildly improbable 5-4 comeback win against the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen Monday night.
When Jedd Gyorko hit a fly ball and Scott Schebler caught it for the second out of the ninth, the Cardinals had a 0.4 percent chance of winning the game, according to Fangraphs. There was a man on first base, a solid relief pitcher on the mound and a four-run deficit that had to be overcome. Maybe math isn’t their strong suit, but the Cardinals didn’t act like the odds were 99.6-to-0.4 against them.
“You’re definitely not thinking, ‘Dangit, there went the ballgame,'” Brandon Moss said.
As those numbers would suggest, things like this don’t happen very often. The Cardinals became the first team in the major leagues in more than three years to win a game they trailed by four or more runs with two outs in the ninth inning. How they did it — with three walks and two hit batsmen — added to the weirdness of it all. And for those looking to laugh it off at the expense of the Reds’ bullpen, those guys — who had a habit of imploding pre-All-Star break — actually had a 2.45 ERA in July and a 2.25 ERA so far in August.
The Cardinals were not in a good spot before that ninth inning. Even manager Mike Matheny, who has literally written a book on positive thinking, admitted the team was flat and said the ambience “looked and felt dead” earlier in the game. Moss used the term “frustrating” several times to describe the mood before the rally.
“They’re human,” Matheny said. “As much as we know that they’ve got that nature to keep fighting, it takes a lot out of you.”
The Cardinals had gone 2-4 in their previous six games, all against last-place teams. Their starting pitching since Jaime Garcia‘s masterful performance Friday night has not been good. In fact, it has been so bad that the rest of the team has hardly had a chance to overcome it. When Michael Wacha allowed four runs in the second and third innings combined, it fit a disturbing short-term pattern. Cardinals starters have allowed 14 total runs in the first three innings of the past three games.
If only it were just a short-term trend. It is deeper than that. Since the All-Star break, Cardinals starters have a 5.63 ERA, worst in the National League and second worst in MLB. There is a reason salmon swim only upstream shortly before they die. It’s exhausting.
“We’ve been chasing the first couple innings a lot, and that’s hard to keep that energy,” Matheny said. “But a win like that certainly helps. You don’t even have to stand on the top step and yell, ‘Hey, remember when we did that!’ They already have that in their short-term memories.”
Unlike in the case of Martinez and Wainwright, who had been pitching well before this last turn, Wacha is in a long, deep rut. Lately, he has been getting through his starts with OK results, but the dynamism he showed early in his career is missing. The Reds swung and missed at just three of Wacha’s first 61 pitches. He hasn’t struck out more than four batters in a start in a month.
Wacha’s 1.43 WHIP ranks 75th out of 90 qualified major league starters. Cincinnati could have done even more damage in those early innings Monday, but Wacha escaped a jam created by a hit, two walks and three stolen bases in the first inning.
The Cardinals say he is healthy. Wacha says he is healthy.
“Yeah, yeah, I feel good,” he said.
“We check him out and, hopefully, that’s always the case. Right now, he’s trying to feel through some things,” Matheny said. “So, we’ll just keep our eyes open.”