After dropping consecutive home games to the Cubs to extend their losing streak to four, the Cardinals desperately needed a win Sunday. And they got one.
But it was the way they did so that could offer the blueprint for a path to a potential return to October: The bullpen locked it down, and not just in the late innings.
Starter Jack Flaherty gave an admirable effort in keeping the Cubs off the scoreboard for five innings despite inviting several self-inflicted obstacles along the way. Across the third and fourth innings, Flaherty walked three batters, hit two more with pitches and committed a throwing error on a pick-off attempt. Those events had Captain Jack navigating some treacherous waters.
Though his control wasn’t at its best, Flaherty turned it on when he had to, stranding the bases loaded twice. Seven strikeouts and various escape acts elevated Flaherty’s pitch count early, meaning the bullpen would have to shoulder the load.
John Brebbia, Austin Gomber, Jordan Hicks and Bud Norris answered the bell, turning in four scoreless frames to cap a combined shutout, a 5-0 win for the Cardinals. As the bullpen continued to mow down Cub hitters, the St. Louis offense continued poking and prodding its way to runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
That’s exactly how it’s supposed to look.
“They drove (Flaherty’s) pitch count up a little bit, so you could kind of tell early we were going to have to make an impact on the game,” Gomber said.
After Brebbia delivered a scoreless sixth, the Cardinals came away with two runs in the bottom half to give Gomber a meaningful task in the seventh.
“For me it was big, shutdown inning,” Gomber said. “Especially the way this series has gone, for us to be able to scratch off a couple runs, I felt the momentum was starting to shift our way. It was my job to come in and keep it that way.”
Gomber did just that, following Brebbia’s example with a scoreless seventh. From there, Hicks and Norris closed the door, as they typically do. The duo has been reliable in the back end of games for St. Louis; it’s been the preceding innings where the recurring issues have so often cropped up.
But this time, the Cardinals had an answer, perhaps signalling a new game plan for those middle innings in the weeks to come.
“Those bridge innings, going to continue to give guys chances,” Mike Matheny said. “Brebbia did a nice job and Gomber continues to impress us. He even showed a little more today with getting the switch hitter over, using the breaking ball. I thought his changeup was very good. He’s got some great weapons.”
The Cardinals may have found a formula that worked. Would they elect to go in a different direction, anyway?
One thing that could hinder the replication of Sunday’s successful bullpen procession: the players that held the Cubs in check for those middle innings might not get to stay on the roster. Matheny confirmed Sunday night Jose Martinez had landed safely in Philadelphia and would be activated for the series there beginning Monday. Greg Holland will also be with the team and is expected to be activated this week.
So Brebbia earned his first-career win with Sunday’s effort, while Gomber offered another sample of how his presence in the bullpen could help this team thrive. Yet, with a little simple math, it’s clear the Cardinals can’t commit to anyone’s presence on the roster being permanent.
“That’s a great question,” Matheny said when asked if Brebbia might have earned the chance to avoid the Memphis shuttle for a while longer. “We’ve got some guys coming back. We have a number of guys that are throwing good enough to be part of what we’re doing, but we have some other players that we’re looking forward to having back, having them right, and having them figure out how they’re going to fill in.”
With these intriguing comments, Matheny seems to be specifically referring to Holland. All year, the narrative has persisted how critical having Holland “right” could be for the club. The aggression from the organization to reinsert him into the fold despite struggles during his rehab stint—he allowed four runs and two home runs in five innings while walking four—could backfire if those struggles carry over to his next opportunities with St. Louis. And though Holland has been elite in the past, he’s shown no signs in 2018 of being able to recapture that status for the Cardinals.
It’s likely Luke Voit would be optioned back to Memphis Monday, having served as Martinez’s replacement for the weekend. And there are several potential names that could see the shuttle upon Holland’s return.
But if Holland takes a roster spot from someone recently resembling reliable middle relief—like Brebbia or Gomber—then he’ll have to start resembling it, too.