Stretched thin by a taxing Tuesday, Cardinals bullpen coughs up 6-0 lead in loss to Dodgers Wednesday

Though he departed with a healthy lead, Adam Wainwright did so with one out in the sixth knowing that he left a lot of ground for his relievers to cover.
St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos pauses after giving up an RBI single to...
St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos pauses after giving up an RBI single to Los Angeles Dodgers' Hanser Alberto during the ninth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, July 13, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: Jul. 14, 2022 at 3:11 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Adam Wainwright constantly preaches the importance of efficiency on the mound, often sharing that his goal is to match the first digit of his pitch count with the inning in which he’s pitching during his starts.

Though that notion was quickly rendered an impossibility on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals’ veteran starter still found a way to grind through lackluster command to outduel the pitcher that came into the night with the best ERA in all of Major League Baseball.

Wainwright navigated 5.1 scoreless frames against the potent Los Angeles lineup as his teammates built another sizable lead. But Wainwright’s inability to go deeper into his start the night after a taxing game for the St. Louis bullpen meant that tension would loom over the late innings once again at Busch.

After the Dodgers turned a 6-1 deficit into a narrow 7-6 defeat on Tuesday, an almost identical script unfolded Wednesday as the beleaguered Cardinals’ bullpen strained to hold off the NL’s most prolific come-from-behind offense. This time, not even a second Packy Naughton Houdini act in as many days was enough to spare the Cardinals. Giovanny Gallegos blew a save in the ninth as the Dodgers carried on their reputation as comeback kings, beating the Cardinals 7-6.

Wainwright praised the Los Angeles lineup for their discipline in forcing him to throw 114 pitches to record 16 outs.

“I could have been more efficient,” Wainwright said. “They were very selective today, that’s what they do. They don’t chase out of the zone. They make you come into the zone. I got ahead of guys, I just lost a lot of those 1-1 counts, and fell into a lot of 2-1 counts.

“We made pitches when we needed to. We just made too many pitches. Should have got outs quicker.”

Though he departed with a healthy lead, Wainwright did so with one out in the sixth knowing that he left a lot of ground for his relievers to have to cover.

“This goes back to what Woody Williams told me way back in the day: If you want wins, you’ve got to go seven,” Wainwright said. “It just makes everything simple. I could have done my job better tonight, gone a little deeper, and we probably would have won that game.”

The Cardinals’ offense certainly set the team up to do so, managing more damage against Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin than any team has this season. A four-run third inning that included a two-RBI hit by Paul Goldschmidt before a two-run home run for Nolan Arenado represented the type of inning that Gonsolin simply hadn’t endured previously in his campaign.

He began the game with a sterling 1.62 ERA and an unblemished 11-0 record. After five innings opposing the St. Louis lineup, Gonsolin found himself with an ERA above 2.00 for the first time since April 9, careening toward his first loss of the season and helpless to stop it.

Fortunately for Gonsolin, the Dodgers’ dangerous lineup was fully capable of stopping it themselves.

One day after St. Louis’ bulk reliever Matthew Liberatore gave his team only 2.1 innings, the Cardinals’ bullpen needed a breather. After Wainwright’s inefficiency, that respite wasn’t coming. Packy Naughton played the hero for the second straight day, retiring a pair of Dodgers hitters to strand runners on first and second and close the line on Wainwright’s day. But the next four relievers to follow him out of the St. Louis bullpen were all charged with at least one earned run.

Drew VerHagen was activated in Liberatore’s roster spot but didn’t fare much better than the rookie did against Los Angeles. Though VerHagen opened his appearance with impressive strikeouts of Mookie Betts and Trea Turner, he and catcher Andrew Knizner then inexplicably steered away from the breaking balls that had provided an edge in those at-bats.

Freddie Freeman and Will Smith made them pay for that choice, with Smith homering to follow a Freeman base hit. The Cardinals’ manager was blunt in his criticism of that sequence.

“I think the pitch selection was not the play,” Marmol said. “You spin both those guys and make them look silly, then you go three or four straight fastballs to Freeman and a fastball to Smith. If a pitch is working, stick with it.”

Matters devolved from there, with Genesis Cabrera and Junior Fernandez combining to permit three runs in the eighth to bring the score to 6-5. With Jordan Hicks, Johan Oviedo and Ryan Helsley unavailable out of the bullpen following their efforts in Tuesday’s win, Marmol was left with limited options for the final three outs in the ninth.

Giovanny Gallegos threw 23 pitches Tuesday but informed the manager pre-game that he had an inning in him for Wednesday. The only other remaining available reliever, T.J. McFarland, was fresh. But his struggles on the year coupled with his recent return from the COVID list had Marmol viewing McFarland as a last resort.

Marmol went with Gallegos. Gio didn’t get it done, allowing at least one run for the fourth consecutive outing. Though Marmol wasn’t left with many viable alternatives on Wednesday, there’s a case to be made that the recent struggles for the once-dominant reliever should force the team to reconsider Gallegos’ role moving forward.

Many Cardinals fans were flummoxed as to why the team’s primary closer Ryan Helsley wasn’t called upon to pitch in the ninth inning Wednesday after getting a day off Monday and throwing just 13 pitches on Tuesday. Looking beyond a mere 48-hour window into his workload over the past week, however, reveals that Helsley had thrown on four of the last six days. That includes a outing spanning three separate innings last Thursday as well as back-to-back games between Saturday and Sunday.

After showing up to the ballpark and playing catch to get a feel for how his body felt during his standard pre-game routine, it was determined that Wednesday would be a hands-off day for Helsley.

“You’ve got to listen to your body,” Helsley said at his locker Wednesday night. “That’s one thing I’ve learned this year and from years past is really being honest. That’s something that I’m trying to improve on. I think that’s how you make the bullpen better, just guys being honest.”

The Cardinals have asked Helsley to pitch in back-to-back games just four times on the season. The instances have been spread out across the calendar carefully to ensure his health for the long haul, with about two weeks separating each of the occasions so far this year.

To assume Helsley should have been able to suddenly adjust to multiple back-to-backs in the same week overlooks the reality of the situation.

“I want to be available every day, you know?” Helsley said. “But sadly, our bodies can’t do that.”

Stressing that different pitchers recover in various manners and on numerous timelines, Marmol described the conversations that take place between a manager and reliever on a daily basis⁠—and the importance of the player being able to trust the manager to craft a pitching plan around those conversations appropriately.

“You have an idea of what every single pitcher in that bullpen is comfortable with that day and then you game plan around that,” Marmol said. “Where you get in trouble and lose their trust is when they tell you they’ve got an inning and you say, ‘Hey I need you to get me five outs.’ Just because you’re in the heat of the moment and you didn’t plan accordingly.

“I hate saying we have more information than you guys because it just seems like a way out. But the reality is, that is the case. I’d love for everybody to be available every day; that game looks different, yeah.”