There finally was good news from Busch Stadium Saturday afternoon. Alas, there also was more bad news for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals’ starting pitcher, Johan Oviedo, who had his best game to date, came out of it in the fourth inning not because he was hurt but because manager Mike Shildt pinch hit for him, unsuccessfully, with the bases loaded.
Cleanup man Nolan Arenado, who had been one for 24, delivered run-scoring singles to right field in each of his first two at-bats as he seemed to cut down his swing a little and then blooped a single in his final at-bat.
Catcher Yadier Molina had to depart in the fourth after taking a foul ball off his left knee. And Ryan Helsley had another rough relief outing as the Cardinals dropped their third consecutive game in this series to Cincinnati and fourth in succession this week, 5-2.
The Cardinals have lost six of their past seven although they tried to rally in the ninth before Cincinnati center fielder Shogo Akiyama made a sliding catch on Edmundo Sosa's liner with runners at second and third to end the game.
Helsley, who surrendered a game-untying, two-run homer to Eugenio Suarez in the sixth inning, has allowed 12 runs over his past 7 1/3 innings covering nine games in which his ERA has ballooned from 3.31 to 6.85 although in one of those games in Arizona, the righthander escaped a bases-loaded, no-out situation.
The game started all right for the Cardinals, who had held an 84-45 advantage over the Reds at Busch Stadium III before this series.
Right fielder Tommy Edman’s running catch in deep center against .367 batsman Nick Castellanos helped Oviedo out of the first inning after, perhaps over-amped, Oviedo had walked leadoff man Jonathan India on five pitches, most of them fastballs.
Edman then opened the Cardinals’ first with a double to deep left center. Dylan Carlson and Paul Goldschmidt struck out but Arenado singled, Edman scored and a relieved Arenado clapped his hands excitedly at first base.
Shortstop Sosa slid behind second to make a dazzling stop on Mike Freeman’s leadoff smash in the third. Freeman initially was called safe by Scott Barry but the Cardinals challenged the call and won.
Oviedo, mixing a good changeup and curveball with his high octane fastball, made Reds pitcher Tyler Mahle his fourth strikeout in the third before India cranked a changeup 419 feet to left for his second homer in two games and fifth for the season, tying the score at 1-1.
Tyler Naquin hustled a double out of what looked like a single to right center with one out in the fourth, barely beating Edman’s throw. “To his credit, he saw it and did it,” manager Mike Shildt said. “It was a good play on his part.” Barnhart’s single to center put the Reds ahead.
Oviedo finished his outing having thrown 49 strikes out of 65 pitches of which, 83 percent of them, according to Shildt’s math, were first-pitch strikes. “I thought he was great,” said Shildt. “Everything was working for him.”
The 23-year-old Oviedo said, “Today was about trusting myself and my stuff,” although he has spent time recently talking to such veterans as Adam Wainwright.
Molina had stayed in the game in the top of the fourth after being hit by the foul tip when head athletic trainer Adam Olsen and Shildt had consulted with him. But not for long as Andrew Knizner took Molina’s at-bat in the bottom of the inning. Molina left with a bone contusion and a hopeful Shildt called Molina “day to day. It could have obviously been much worse.''
“We’ll evaluate and see about tomorrow,” added Shildt, mindful that Monday will be an off day, as well as Thursday.
Reds right fielder Castellanos missed a diving attempt on Goldschmidt’s looper inside the right-field line in the Cardinals’ fourth and Goldschmidt legged it into a triple. Arenado delivered again, with another run-scoring single to right and the game was tied at 2-2.
Eventually the bases were loaded with two outs and Oviedo up. Shildt took a calculated gamble. He used one of his three remaining bench men, newly recalled John Nogowski, to pinch hit for Oviedo, and Nogowski flied out.
Shildt said he made the move because we “had a lot of bullpen firepower that’s been rested. We hadn’t been scoring many runs. We took our shot.
“I turned to the (coaches) in the fourth inning and said, ‘The bases are going to be loaded with two out.’ Then you’ve got to figure out what your decision is.”
Even though he was using half his bench in that inning, the decision was a no-brainer for Shildt, who, with off days coming, can use his top relievers, including Alex Reyes and Giovanny Gonzalez, in each of three remaining games of the home stand and could have employed them Saturday, as well.
“We have the ability to shorten some games with the back end of our bullpen,” Shildt said.
Oviedo said he understood why he was pulled. “I was not surprised,” he said.
With Jack Flaherty and Kwang Hyun Kim on the injured list, Oviedo, who is winless in 10 big-league starts but getting better, will have more opportunities.
“I will try to be ready for every time, for any moment the team needs me,” he said.
Helsley (3-4) relieved in the fifth and escaped after allowing a leadoff double to the hot-hitting India. He issued a leadoff walk to Barnhart in the sixth and Suarez crushed his 13th homer 409 feet into the Reds’ bullpen in left center. It was only the second homer Helsley had given up in 23 2/3 innings
A leadoff walk by Genesis Cabrera in the seventh led to the final Reds run, which came home on Knizner’s throwing error to third after Cabrera had thrown a wild pitch.
Sunday’s fourth game of the series will be the final one of the stretch in which the Cardinals have played 17 games in 17 days.
This is the second time they have had such a stretch this season, going 13-4 and gaining control of first place in the National League Central Division the first time.
In this 17-game stretch, the Cardinals are 6-10 so far and they now occupy third place in the division.
They’ve lost the first three in this series despite the winners going two for 29 with runners in scoring position for the series.
“Sometimes, you just can’t explain this game,” said Shildt.
“We’re in a little bit of a rut,” said Arenado. ““We’re scuffling a little but we’ve got a lot of season left.”
Shildt said, “You’re talking about a lot of baseball in a lot of interesting time zones and hours and game times.
“But winners find solutions and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
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