There are a few categories of wins and losses that I look to for particular insight. They are the games that reveal character. Games against winning teams is one. Games after a loss is another. And then there are the one-run games. They tell a special story, as victory or defeat is always just a matter of one pitch, one play, or one decision.
Last night’s 5-4, walk-off win over Cincinnati (boxscore) was, perhaps, the quintessential one-run game. The twists and turns of that contest allowed both teams ample opportunity to get the win – and, like all of these games, the deciding factors were part talent and part character with a dash of good (or bad) luck tossed in.
The game began as a Cincinnati rout. A couple of Cardinal errors led to two unearned first-inning runs, and the Reds increased their lead to 3-0 on Freddy Galvis’ second inning home run.
But the Reds weren’t done in the second. Tucker Barnhart and Joey Votto followed the home run with singles. If Votto’s single was just placed well enough that Barnhart could have made it to third, he would almost certainly have scored on Nicholas Castellanos’ fly ball, and that might have changed the course of the game. Perhaps Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright doesn’t survive the third if he allows any more runs in the second. But Barnhart had to hold at second, Wainwright rebounded to retire both Castellanos and Jesse Winker, and the Reds stranded two. Still, they had an early 3-0 lead with Sonny Gray – one of baseball’s nastiest pitchers – on the mound.
The Cards had their first opportunity to dig into that lead in the bottom of the second when they loaded the bases with one out. At the plate, recently returned Yadier Molina was facing a live pitcher for the first time in over three weeks, and for the first two pitches looked overmatched by Gray. But Sonny missed with the 1-2 pitch – a slider that he left up. Yadi flicked it into right, and St Louis trimmed the lead to 3-2. Without that hit, St Louis almost certainly loses this game.
Cincy pushed the lead back up to 4-2 in the top of the third, as an infield hit off the bat of Eugenio Suarez preceded Mike Moustakas’ double into the right-field gap. At that point, Waino had only recorded 6 outs, while serving up 4 runs on 6 hits – including a homer.
But Moustakas would be the last Red to reach base against Adam, who set down the last 15 batters he faced, becoming the first Cardinal pitcher to complete 7 innings in this strange season. But Gray was nearly as good, muffling the Cardinal bats as the game went to the bullpens in the bottom of the seventh, Cincinnati still holding a 4-2 lead.
The Reds had opportunities in the eighth and especially in the ninth to pad their lead. But Alex Reyes struck out Josh VanMeter to end the eighth with runners at first and third. Seth Elledge invited more trouble in the ninth when he walked Galvis leading off. But on the second pitch to Barnhart, Molina gunned Galvis out at second trying to steal. If Freddy makes it, the Reds probably win. If Freddy had just stayed at first, the Reds would probably have won. Seth then proceeded to load the bases on a double and two walk before finally striking out Suarez on the 32nd pitch of the inning.
All of this left the Cards within striking distance in the ninth, when Raisel Iglesias emerged from the Cincinnati bullpen. In almost every case, one team’s closer will have a significant impact on the outcome of a one-run game – and this one began to unravel on Iglesias immediately. A hit batter, a walk, a single and suddenly the bases were loaded with nobody out.
At the plate, of course, was Molina – who once again fell behind quickly, 0-2. When Molina initially hit the next pitch, it looked like Iglesias had induced the double-play that would gut the rally. But as the ball hopped over the mound, Iglesias leapt to glove it. He succeeded only in batting the ball away from the shortstop and toward third. The Reds had no play anywhere. The bases were still loaded, still no one out, the lead now trimmed to 4-3.
At this point, it must have been apparent to all parties how this one would end. A balk brought home the tying run, and one out later Kolten Wong greeted Nate Jones with a drive into the gap in right-center to end the nip-and-tuck affair in the Cardinal’s favor.
As is often the case in one-run games, the heroes at the end of the game were not necessarily the ones who were having the best game early on. Wainwright was on the ropes early before he settled in to become the pitching hero of the game. Seth Elledge saw four of the six batters he faced reached base – three of them on walks. But he made the pitch he needed to make to get out of the ninth and was awarded his first major league win. Prior to his game-winning hit, Kolten Wong had been 0-for-4 with 3 strikeouts.
In his eight-year career in St Louis, Wong has now delivered 12 game-winning hits and 15 late, game-changing hits in one-run games. (For the record, Albert Pujols has delivered the most Cardinal game-winning hits in one-run games this century with 42 and is tied with Molina for most late, game-changing hits in one-run games with 37.)
St Louis is now 2-1 this season in one-run games. They were 25-22 during the regular season last year, and won both one-run games in the Division Series against Atlanta. During the century, they are 481-467 (counting playoffs) in these contests.
It is hardly surprising that the comeback came at the expense of the Reds. Almost every season, it seems that St Louis fashions some kind of highlight-reel comeback against Cincinnati. This was the 161st time this century that St Louis has come from at least three runs behind to win. Twenty-seven of those have come at the expense of the Reds – including the Cards two biggest comebacks this century. On May 12, 2002 they came from 8 runs down to win 10-8. Just last year (on July 19) they turned a 7-run deficit into a 12-11 win. They have won 62 games this century when trailing after 8 innings. Seven of those have come at Cincinnati’s expense – including this game in May of 2005 when the Cards won 10-9 after trailing by six runs headed into the ninth.
If the comeback last night seemed eerily familiar, that might be the reason.
Cincinnati’s two-run first marked the eighth time in the last 11 games that St Louis has allowed the first run of the game.
My Designated Hitter Rant
As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably). If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH. Here is the link. If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.