It was the sixth inning, actually, when the season turned.
From April 28 through May 6 the Cardinals spun their wheels through an eight-game losing streak. On Sunday, May 7, St Louis sat 10-24 and ten games behind in the division. And, for five innings that Sunday, it looked like the ninth consecutive loss was inevitable. Detroit’s lefty Tyler Alexander opened the sixth holding a 6-3 lead. He lasted long enough to put the lead in jeopardy, surrendering a single to Paul Goldschmidt and hitting Nolan Gorman. Into the fray came right-hander Mason Englert, and 34 games worth of frustration would be answered on his head. A double-steal and an error on a grounder brought home the first run. Then Englert misplaced a 91.7 mph fastball over the heart of the plate. Brendan Donovan juiced the errant pitch 407 feet down the right-field line, and the Cards were suddenly in front, 7-6.
Before Detroit would finally find its way out of the inning, Andrew Knizner would add a run with a double, and Lars Nootbaar would make it 10-6 with a two-run single. St Louis would end its losing streak with a resounding 12-6 win. The team has carried a special relationship with the sixth inning ever since.
The next night, they were in Chicago and scuffling against the talented Marcus Stroman. The Birds came to the plate against Marcus in the sixth inning, tied 1-1. A leadoff walk to Nootbaar caused momentary concern, but after a strikeout of Goldschmidt and a fly out from Gorman, Stroman was almost out of trouble. But another stolen base preceded a ringing double from ex-Cub Willson Contreras and a 2-1 lead. St Louis would go on to win that game, too, 3-1.
The sweep in Boston was set in motion with a three-run, sixth-inning rally on Friday night that turned a 4-2 Red sox lead into a 5-4 Cardinal lead. That lead didn’t hold, but the runs proved to be critical when Cards pulled out the 8-6 win in the ninth.
As the Cards have now won 8 of their last 10 to pull themselves back into relevance, St Louis has scored 29% of their runs (20 of 69) in that one inning. In the last ten sixth-innings, the Birds are hitting a robust .444 (24 of 54) while slugging .685 (they’ve hit four doubles and three home runs).
The timing is more than a little fortuitous. The sixth is generally the last inning that teams will try to nurse their starter through before turning to the exotic arms of the back of their bullpen. If you are going to have one explosive inning, the sixth is kind of the last call.
And so, it was kind of fitting that – in a suddenly very significant series against Milwaukee – it was that sixth inning that ultimately proved pivotal. After the Cards took the opener in a surprising 18-1 blowout, Milwaukee came back to earn a tense 3-2 win on Tuesday – in spite of the fact that they lost their starter to injury in the third inning. This boded ill for the Birds, because that meant that to win the series, they would have to beat Corbin Burnes – never an easy task.
Fast forward to last night’s sixth inning. Burnes still on the mound for the Crew. St Louis clings to a 1-0 lead they forged in the first inning on an infield single. Corbin has needed only 71 pitches to muffle the Cards through the first five. Burnes began the inning striking out Contreras, before Donovan flared a single into center. The inning might have ended on the next pitch. Alec Burleson stroked a grounder down the right-field line that Brewer first-baseman Rowdy Tellez picked up right at the first base bag.
As Rowdy stepped on first, Brendan was only about half-way to second. Tellez turned to throw to second for the inning-ending double-play, but decided he didn’t have a throwing lane. So he held the ball. Burleson was out, but Donovan was safely standing on second.
Three pitches later, Paul DeJong landed on a 94-mph cutter and launched it into Freese’s lawn just behind the center field wall. They were the final runs scored in the series (box score). At 18-26, the Birds are still under .500. But with the win against the first-place Brewers, the Cards have pulled to within 6.5 games of the division lead, chopping 3.5 games off their deficit in just 10 games.
Suddenly the future seems a lot more hopeful. And anticipation rises when the Cards come to the plate in the sixth inning.
Pitching Takes the Lead
The major concern the entire offseason, the pitching struggles punctuated St Louis’ terrible start this season. The Cards allowed almost five runs per game (4.97) during those first 34 games. But that same pitching staff has led the resurgence. After posting a 1.33 ERA and a .220 opponents’ batting average against Milwaukee, the team ERA is down to 3.03 over the last 10 games.
His two-run, ninth-inning home run on Friday night in Boston was Gorman’s fifth game-winning RBI of the season. Nolan had 5 all of last year in 89 games and 283 at bats. No other Cardinal has more than 3.
After Wednesday’s win, St Louis has scored first in 11 of their last 14 games.
Donovan’s start at first on Wednesday broke a string of 14 consecutive starts at first for Goldschmidt. It had been the longest streak of consecutive starts at the same position by anyone on the team. That mantle now falls to DeJong, who has made nine consecutive starts at short.
Milwaukee finished the series having scored just 4 runs over the three games – by far the best pitching series of the young season for the Cards. They’ve had two other three-game series this season in which they’ve surrendered just 10 runs. In their first series against the Brewers in Milwaukee (April 7-9) they lost two of three in spite of the fact that the Crew managed to scored just 10 runs. In their three-game sweep of Boston (May 12-14), they also allowed just 10 runs.
With three straight series’ wins, St Louis is now 5-8-1 in their first 14 series of the year.
On the heels of winning two-of-three from Minnesota, the Dodgers will be the fourth of the Cardinals’ last five opponents to have won its previous series. The only recent opponent St Louis faced that didn’t win its previous series was Boston, who hosted the Cards after splitting two games in Atlanta.