MILWAUKEE — Entering a week the Cardinals have branded “daunting” because it’s overstuffed with doubleheaders, there already was ample roster angst and action concerning the pitching, the innings required of the staff, and the recent injuries that thin the bullpen.
By the time Monday arrived, the Cardinals didn’t lack for pitching at all, haven’t really all season despite testing both their pitching depth and elasticity.
What they keep running out of is offense.
The Cardinals got seven shutout innings from Kwang Hyun Kim in Game 1 and six superb innings from Daniel Ponce de Leon in the night game and still groped for runs, any kind of runs, even accidental runs to back the starters.
The Cardinals scored four runs total in the doubleheader, half of them in extra innings when they get a head start of a runner at second base. Paul DeJong’s RBI single in the ninth inning scored that runner and emerged from an evening of misspent chances in Game 2 for a 3-2 victory. That split the doubleheader at Miller Park.
The Brewers’ 2-1 victory in Game 1 came on a sacrifice fly in the eighth with all of the game’s runs being scored in extra innings. Both games needed extra innings beyond the required seven to be decided — a referendum on the teams’ chronic troubles scoring runs as much as how snug they are in the standings.
“We were talking before the game that we don’t feel like we’re this stagnant of an offense,” DeJong said. “So, really we just need to trust in ourselves and know what we’re capable of as a group. There’s some hope there.”
If anything, the Brewers can empathize as kindred zeroes.
Before they scored two in extra innings of Game 1, the Brewers had been no-hit Sunday and gone 21 consecutive innings without a run. Kim prolonged that with seven scoreless innings before yielding to the bullpen for extra innings. Ponce de Leon picked up where Kim left off — even literally. He saw the lefty sit in the same spot in the clubhouse during the top of every inning. So, Ponce de Leon sat there, too. It worked for pitching as he held the Brewers to two runs — both on former Cardinals’ Jedd Gyorko’s homer — in six innings. That spot wasn’t so great for generating run support.
In Ponce de Leon’s game, more than half of the Cardinals’ at-bats came with runners in scoring position. They had 38 at-bats and 20 had a runner at second or third or both. In those spots the Cardinals got five hits, including DeJong’s, but two didn’t produce a run. In the fourth, the Cardinals should have taken a 1-0 lead, but Tyler O’Neill misread a line-drive single and instead of breaking from second, broke back toward second. He got as far — which only gave him a better view of the groundout and strikeout that ended the inning. So many other innings extinguished in less dramatic ways.
The Cardinals got the leadoff hitters on in the third inning, and the inning unraveled with two strikeouts. The Cardinals struck out 15 times in Game 2. They two teams combined for 50 strikeouts in the day’s 17 innings.
That’s the equivalent of eight innings of strikeouts.
“Sometimes you don’t get that many bites,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We weren’t able to come through. Had plenty of opportunities. We’ve got to put the ball in play, get the ball in the air a little bit better. Too many strikeouts. Too many soft contacts in the infield.”
A sweep by the Brewers (21-25) would have created a virtual tie with the Cardinals (21-21) for second-place in the NL Central with three games remaining in this series. Pitching stood between the Cardinals and that knot.
Kim detailed how pitching coach Mike Maddux and catcher Yadier Molina walked him through their game plan for the Brewers and the expanded use of his fastball.
“The Brewers hitters are weak here against the inside fastball,” Kim said, through interpreter Craig Choi. “I threw (the fastball) for weak contact, and some of their bats were broke, as well.”
The Kim navigated a route to the inside slice of the plate, and Ponce de Leon followed in his wake.
Ponce de Leon struck out the first three batters he faced, and he had eight strikeouts before the 14th batter came to the plate. All eight finished with a fastball. He struck out former MVP Christian Yelich with a 94.1-mph fastball in the frist inning, and got him again with a 93.-mph fatsball in the fourth. Kim finished with six strikeouts in his seven innings. Ponce de Leon answered with nine in Game 2, and the ninth came on a cutter set up by a fastball.
“Any team against my fastball today wouldn’t have looked good,” Ponce de Leon said. “I’m not trying to brag or anything. It just felt that good.”
The Cardinals starters combined to throw 13 innings, strike out 15 batters, and hold the Brewers to two runs. Kim allowed three hits and a late-game leak led to the loss. In five starts this season, Kim has a 0.33 ERA, the lowest by a Cardinals’ rookie in at least 100 years through five starts, and possibly ever. The Cardinals took a lead in Game 1 on Tommy Edman’s RBI single in the eighth. The Brewers answered with Ryan Braun’s double to the wall off Ryan Helsley. That put the winning run at third, and a line drive off Austin Gomber by Keston Hiura provided the walk-off RBI.
Helsley was only in the game at that moment because John Gant (groin) and Giovanny Gallegos (groin) were unavailable. That put greater emphasis on the outings by the starters, which Shildt called “enormous, timely, clutch, all those superlatives.”
One that would have helped: Supported.
“We’re going to step up and win all these series. That’s really all we have to do,” DeJong said. “Splitting this was a good start to salvage the day. We know we’re up against it. We haven’t seen the Brewers all year, so hopefully we’re learning from today.”