ST. LOUIS — For much of the Cardinals’ home finale, everything seemed normal. It was a tight game with the Reds, and both clubs had flashed some offense through six innings.
For Cincinnati, the long ball gave them their first two hits along with their first two runs.
“I made two pitches in the middle of the zone for homers,” starter Lance Lynn said. “Balls that ran back middle that weren’t supposed to run back middle and that’ll happen.”
Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier both took Lynn yard, and the Reds scraped another run in the sixth. The Cardinals pulled within one in the bottom half and things felt like a September game in a tight race.
Then in the eighth, it felt like watching batting practice. Kevin Siegrist came and on walked the first two hitters of the frame, and Mike Matheny called on rookie Sam Tuivailala to handle the mess. The manager had said previously he wanted to find the right time to ease the 21-year-old in, and a one-run game with runners on seemed an odd place to make his home debut.
He gave up two towering home runs in three batters, pushing the Cincinnati lead to 7-2. Fans began to head for the exits, and observers were left wondering what led to the decision to call on the rookie.
Iin the post game conference, things became clearer.
“We had a lot of guys unavailable,” Matheny said. “Almost as many unavailable as available.”
What began as a couple players battling a stomach bug Saturday turned into a clubhouse-wide epidemic Sunday. While some of that bullpen unavailability was due to workload, far more of it was caused by the virus that seems to be rampaging through the club.
“Whatever it is, it’s hit fast and hard.” Matheny explained. “Just something we’re going to have to wade through. Guys were still popping up mid-game. There’s some other guys we weren’t expecting for it to kind of hit and it did.”
The manager conceded that the illness has sidelined more than 10 players as well as several coaches, and impacted his choices late in the game; especially his move to go to Tuivailala in a high-stress situation.
“It’s a tough spot. Is that the only option? No, we have other guys. Not a lot of options on the right-handed side that’s for sure,” he said. “He’s got great stuff. He’s going to be good. We put him in a tough spot and we’re in a tough spot as a club.”
Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams, the first two affected by the virus, were both unavailable again Sunday, indicating it will take 48 hours for affected players to get back to game strength. It made for a strange atmosphere around the final home stand, as the Cardinals balanced news of a playoff clinch with a wave of illness.
“I like to be in my own little bubble and not worry about anything else,” Lynn said of the drama swirling around his start. “The odd thing is half your team is on the training table sick.”
The Cardinals fly to Chicago Monday as they begin their final road trip, and the combination of air travel and cramped quarters at Wrigley make containment of the illness a concern. With extra medical staff working to determine how best to handle the outbreak, certain players will not make the scheduled trip with the team.
“We don’t exactly know how many, but it might delay a couple guys,” Matheny said. “Most of them they think are beyond the contagious stage, but we’re still getting reports as guys are coming off the field.”
Even with a playoff berth assured, the Cardinals have made it clear a division title is the prize their chasing. Pittsburgh’s victory Sunday tightened the race in the Central to 2.5 games, making the final series with the Cubs a crucial one.
“We have a playoff spot but it’s not the one we want,” Lynn said. “We still have some work to do.”
With a reeling roster, that work will be extra strenuous.