ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — The last time J.A. Happ face the Cincinnati Reds was a nightmare for the Cardinals.
In Game 2 of a doubleheader against the Reds back on September 2, Happ recorded only three outs. He surrendered far more runs. Happ finished the day having allowed seven earned runs in 1.0 innings, cementing a Cardinals loss before the game ever really even got underway.
A nightmare for the Cardinals—and evidently, for Happ, too.
“You do your best to flush it,” Happ said Sunday of the rotten outing. “It’s easier said than done. It cost me several nights’ sleep. That’s just me caring a lot about it.”
Happ’s August made Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak look like a mad genius. After joining the team on trade deadline day, Happ compiled a 2.22 ERA in his first month with the Cardinals, resembling precisely the kind of diamond in the rough the St. Louis front office sought. Unwilling to part with premium prospects to bolster the present-day squad, the Cardinals turned their attention toward affordable ‘change-of-scenery’ candidates to shift the momentum of their starting rotation. For a month, it worked with Happ.
Then came that start against the Reds.
On Sunday at Busch Stadium, Happ got another crack at Cincinnati. He took advantage to the tune of 5.1 scoreless innings to put the Cardinals in position to claim a much-needed series against a primary foe for the National League’s second wild card spot.
On a day where the Padres lost to the Dodgers, the Cardinals defeated the Reds 2-0 to pull within a game of both San Diego and Cincinnati for claim to that coveted postseason berth.
Happ held down a dangerous Reds lineup Sunday, permitting just a pair of hits and a walk while pitching into the sixth. Coming off two September starts in which he allowed 11 total runs, Happ delivered arguably his most effective outing as a Cardinal.
It’s a redemptive outing that will benefit Happ each time his head hits the pillow over the next few nights.
“To be honest, I really haven’t slept great since the last time I faced those guys, after that game,” Happ said. “So to come back and have a decent one and give us a chance to win the series was big... I was happy to get some solid results today.”
The Cardinals have maneuvered around an inconsistent offense the entire year. Sunday was no different, as Nolan Arenado provided the only scoring of the afternoon when he banged a two-run homer off of the Big Mac Land facade in the first inning. But with Happ’s solid effort leading into another banner day for the bullpen, the Cardinals didn’t need any more than that which Arenado had provided.
The relievers that followed Happ played a considerable role in that, too.
It’s not uncommon for a bullpen to experience ebbs and flows over the course of a season. The Cardinals have gone through stretches of the campaign during which their core late-inning weapons—Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes—seemed infallible. But during those times earlier this season, the team frequently struggled to find other relievers to pick up the mantle in the middle innings.
The flow chart was simple. Late and close—while ahead—pointed toward the trio. All other scenarios pointed toward disappointment. The second-string relievers weren’t getting the job done on a regular basis.
To its credit, the front office continually tinkered with the mixture, ushering in several free agent signings throughout the summer in a search for answers. They found a couple in T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia, who have added an element of reliability since their arrivals.
Scattered struggles for the late-inning trio has led to a recent reshuffling of bullpen roles. The Cardinals moved Reyes from the ninth, but remain comfortable sliding him into various roles depending on the game script. Thursday, he tossed two scoreless frames to build a bridge to the late-inning guys. Saturday, he filled the set-up role and threw up a donut in the eighth.
Gallegos is settling into his new home as the team’s closer, and with five saves this month, he appears to be enjoying the new digs. Cabrera served as his bridge Sunday, finding another gear to his stuff that allowed him to reach triple-digits on the radar gun in the eighth inning.
Then there’s McFarland and Garcia, consistently willing and ready to get in where they fit in. Garcia picked up the baton from Happ in the sixth, and passed it to McFarland after allowing a base runner in the seventh.
For a manager who had frequently bemoaned the notion that he couldn’t keep turning to the same three guys to hold leads every night, the bullpen’s increased versatility has been a godsend. With the McFarland-Garcia duo now serving as a key component of a unit that still features the Big Three in prominent slots, the reshuffled deck suddenly feels stacked in the Cardinals’ favor once again.
“I attribute that to trust, honestly,” McFarland said. “All of us down there trust one another, know one another. Me coming in in the middle of an inning for Garcia’s runs—we all do that. We all trust one another. Sometimes we don’t succeed, but we pick each other up. When one part of our bullpen is scuffling, the other guys realize, ‘Hey listen, it’s our turn to pick them up, because they’ve been doing it the whole year.’ That’s the unity. That’s the mindset down there. And it’s really paying off.”
The Cardinals manager certainly isn’t complaining about his relief weapons falling into place for the most important month of the regular season.
"Our bullpen, they’re just quiet assassins, man,” Mike Shildt said Sunday after another day in which the unit nailed down a pivotal victory. “They’re together. They prepare very well. They’re a very low-maintenance group. They’re in it for us. They’re going to have each others’ backs. And they’re going to go in there and take care of business.”
As the Cardinals draw closer in the wild card picture, their formula for success is evident. The 2021 version of this team works best when its pitching carries the load. Good defense, a calling card of the Cardinals under Shildt, can help facilitate that success on the mound. Then, there's the topic of the offense.
At this stage in the season, a lineup that ranks toward the bottom of the league in most offensive categories probably shouldn't be expected to generate a sudden infusion of world-beating ability. They’d settle for timeliness, at this point, in order to benefit from the provisions of a pitching staff rounding into form in the nick of time. That's the blueprint.
The Cardinals see it. Following it consistently is the next step.
“We have an idea of what we feel like we need to do,” Happ said. “But at the same time, we know we can’t do that in one day. Getting the split with L.A. was huge. Coming out and winning the series here was huge. We know we’re able to maintain or gain by doing that. In the back of our heads, we have an idea of what needs to be done, here.
"It’s getting really interesting now—and that’s just going to make it that much more fun.”
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