When Dylan Carlson felt his hamstring come apart it was just as his game was starting to come together.
The Cardinals’ switch-hitting outfielder, who arrived into his third season in the majors on a gust of last summer’s strong finish, had a .175 batting average on May Day. He spent the next three weeks yanking that average up, batting .333 over his next 19 games, and mirroring that steady pulse of performance the Cardinals saw in last season’s final two months and craved to lengthen and enliven their lineup.
Everything was running in the right direction, until he could not run at all.
Back after spending three weeks recovering from a torn hamstring, Carlson kept the heat up on his swing even as he iced his muscle. Carlson connected for a three-run homer Monday that punctuated the Cardinals’ rally from a five-run deficit and lifted them toward a 7-5 victory against Pittsburgh at Busch Stadium. Carlson doubled to create the Cardinals’ final run. His homer completed a five-run inning in the sixth ignited by Paul Goldschmidt’s leadoff double. Goldschmidt broke the tie with a solo homer to lead off the seventh inning.
Pittsburgh starter Mitch Keller had confounded the Cardinals as his teammates built a 5-0 lead through five innings. When a pair of hits, including Goldschmidt’s double, chased him, the Cardinals pounced on reliever Anthony Banda, the only lefty in the Bucs’ bullpen.
Left-handed hitter Brendan Donovan narrowed the Pirates’ lead with a two-run double, and the inning found Carlson with two teammates on base. From the right side, he launched the first pitch he saw into the Cardinals’ bullpen for a tie game.
Trusted trio flawless
The three relievers the Cardinals trust most and have spent so much time in the past few weeks trying to avoid overworking so they would be available to cinch games such as Monday’s, did so as designed. Ryan Helsley claimed his fifth save with a perfect ninth inning to complete a perfect run for the relievers against Pittsburgh. Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, and lefty Genesis Cabrera retired all eight batters they faced.
But the run of four perfect innings began with lefty T. J. McFarland.
When McFarland took over in the top of the sixth the Pirates led 5-0, and the work done by the relievers to anchor Pittsburgh there allowed the Cardinals to score seven unanswered runs.
Another debut with some dents
The first of three rookie pitchers set to start games in this four-game visit from the Pirates, Zack Thompson did what others could not in their debuts as starters this season.
He finished the fifth inning.
Andre Pallante, Wednesday’s starter, and other first-time big-league starters, Matthew Liberatore and Jordan Hicks, all came at least an out shy of pitching enough to qualify for a win. Along the way to completing five, Thompson revealed both the promise he has as a starter and the reason why the Cardinals might veer toward keeping him as a reliever.
The theme of June has been the Cardinals’ quest for pitchers they can count on beyond the late-game firm of Cabrera, Gallegos & Helsley and right-hander Andre Pallante, who has been recast as a starter. The Cardinals’ eagerness to turn to the bullpen, to ask too much of the bullpen came into sharp relief during Thompson’s fifth and final inning. As the lefty allowed back-to-back singles with one out, the Cardinals’ bullpen did not stir.
Their choice to finish the inning already was on the mound.
As his pitch count climbed toward 90, the bullpen did not stir.
Pittsburgh center fielder Bryan Reynolds, who received MVP votes last year, showed how a seasoned hitter gets a read on a new pitcher. He flicked at a 92-mph fastball, took an 87-mph changeup for an uncomfortable strike, and then fouled off three more pitches — two fastballs and a curve. When Thompson went back to that changeup, Reynolds lashed it for a single. Ke’Bryan Hayes followed with the green-light swing on a 3-0 pitch for another single to right.
Those two at-bats were prelude to a three-run homer that made the decision for the Cardinals — they had to start warming up someone else.
It was a spot the Cardinals would have used Thompson as a reliever if he wasn’t already in the game as a starter. On 92 pitches, Thompson had only two swings and misses — one on the changeup — but got 16 called strikes. He touched 96 mph with his fastball, and sank to 71.4 mph with his curveball that he’ll have increasing success with as either a starter or reliever.
“I’m kind of excited to see it from a starter’s perspective — just go out there and see what he’s capable of doing,” manager Oliver Marmol said hours before first pitch. “There is interest in seeing what he is out of the ‘pen as well.”
Goldschmidt starts new streak
The day after his streak of reaching base safely ended at 46, four shy of becoming the second Cardinal in at least 60 years with a stretch that long, Goldschmidt got a break.
And then he got going on another streak.
Before breaking Monday’s tie with his 13th home run of the season, Goldschmidt reached base in his first three plate appearances. He walked, singled, and then finished the evening with extra-base hits in consecutive at-bats.
During his 46-game streak, Goldschmidt hit .377 with a .453 on-base percentage and a .680 slugging percentage. To start his next streak Monday, he hit 1.000 (three for three) with a 1.000 on-base percentage and a 3.333 OPS through seven innings. Quite a pace to set.
Chavis in the arena
At 5 feet 10, according to the team bio, Pirates infielder Michael Chavis does not stand out with the sycamores that often man first base. But he’s had outsized success at Busch Stadium and the Cardinals throughout this season. The three-run homer that warped Thompson’s start was Chavis’ third of the season against the Cardinals. He previously tagged Steven Matz and Adam Wainwright for home runs. With the swing against Thompson, Chavis improved to five-for-nine at Busch this season.
Against the Cardinals, Chavis, Pittsburgh’s cleanup hitter Monday, had 10 hits in his first 21 at-bats of this season. Five of them went for extra base hits.
Defense denies rallies
Whatever flicker of offense the Cardinals conjured in the early innings vanished with Pittsburgh’s sleight of hand. Two of the first Cardinals to hit in the first inning reached base, but a rally never manifested when shortstop Diego Castillo ranged to his left and made a no-look dish to second base that started a double play.
Castillo followed up his stylish defense with a solo homer that gave the Pirates their early lead in the second inning.
In the bottom of that inning, Donovan reached second base with a hustle double, and then got plenty of rest as the Pirates’ defense kept him there. A ricochet off the pitcher went for a routine grounder. Second baseman Yu Chang stood in shallow right field on the defensive shift so that he could cleanly snag a liner from Carlson and end the inning. In the third, Goldschmidt’s groundball single was stopped up the middle to keep Edman from advancing to third.
Through the first four innings, the Cardinals were zero for six with runners in scoring position and three for their past 19. Then they came to life.
@dgoold on Twitter