If the Cardinals saw this weekend series against the New York Yankees — a surefire blockbuster at the gate — as a stage to see how they measure against one of the best teams in baseball, they got a perfect indicator Saturday.
In front of the largest audience, it saw a flawless performance to win.
The Cardinals’ Most Valuable Duo, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, combined to generate one run in the first inning, and that was it. The Cardinals vacuum-sealed it from there. With a mix of stellar defense, a variety of relief pitching, the Cardinals built on Jordan Montgomery’s debut for a 1-0 victory Saturday night at Busch Stadium. The win, which clinched the interleague series for the Cardinals against the 70-win Yankees, vaulted the Cardinals into first place and came in front of the largest crowd ever at Busch III.
At 48,581, the packed house, many of whom got Joe Torre bobbleheads, surpassed the 2019 Mother’s Day crowd that had set the previous high.
After Goldschmidt’s two out double against Yankees pitcher Domingo German, Arenado followed with a 10-pitch at-bat and an RBI single. He punctuated it with a fist pump. That brought an end to the evening’s scoring and turned the game over to the Cardinals’ pitching and defense. The latter has been the golden backbone of the team for more than a year. The former just got an upgrade. Montgomery provided five scoreless innings in his first start since being traded to the Cardinals from the Yankees. The bullpen followed with four more scoreless innings, ultimately bringing the game to former closer Giovanny Gallegos.
All-Star Ryan Helsley was unavailable after finishing Friday’s come-from-behind win against the Yankees. To get the one-run game to the end, Gallegos had to go through the middle of the order. Gallegos got a fly out to deep center from Aaron Judge and then struck out the next two batters to cinch his 11th save.
But even precision needs a dash of daring.
In the eighth inning, with the tying run at first base, right fielder Lars Nootbaar dashed in on a low, sinking liner hit by Kyle Higashioka. Nootbaar could have played it cautious, give up the single, and assure that the runner got no further than second base. Or, he could go for the catch, risk the ball getting past him and assure the game was tied, at least.
For the second time in as many games, he made the dazzling catch that squelched a rally.
Montgomery’s solid five innings coupled with newcomer Jose Quintana’s debut Thursday to give the Cardinals the kind of comfort they wanted at the trade deadline.
Acquired in deals on consecutive days before Tuesday’s trade deadline, Montgomery and Quintana combined to throw 11 innings and allow one run on three hits in their debuts. They struck out more batters (eight) than they allowed to reach base (six), and before leg cramps nudged Montgomery from the game he was on the way to the Cardinals’ fourth quality start in the past five games.
Pitchers who started the week on other teams authored two of them.
Cramps abbreviate Montgomery’s start
A trainer meeting the pitcher on the mound during his warmups is never a good sign, though it was actually a telling sign for Montgomery as he readied for the fifth inning.
Montgomery experienced some discomfort in his legs that was later described as cramps by a team official. It’s not unusual on a muggy, overheated night at Busch Stadium for players to experience muscle soreness that can be related to dehydration. Montgomery took several warmup tosses with a trainer, manager, and pitching coach standing nearby before getting the OK to finish that inning.
He worked quickly, getting three groundouts.
And then he was gone, removed from the game for “precautionary” reasons, the Cardinals described during the game.
A ‘weird’ Cardinals debut for former Yankee
Five days after the Yankees shocked him and many around the game by trading Montgomery, the team that got him started him against the Yankees.
The change of teams was so recent that in the Yankees clubhouse, the photo of the day’s opposing pitcher featured him in a Yankee uniform.
“I mean it’s weird,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Already seeing (it) as we start to plan for the weekend and their starters and who we’re preparing for? Jordan. It’s going to be odd. It will be a weird day for everybody.”
Drafted by the Yankees, developed by the Yankees, and debuted as a Yankee in 2017, Montgomery was a ballast for the Yankees over the past two seasons. He made 30 starts with an above average 3.83 ERA in the American League last season, and at the time of the trade, Montgomery led this year’s Yankees with 21 starts. He was the reliable middle-rotation starter around which contenders often hinge — the starter who provides innings, assures the bullpen gets a reset, and keeps a rotation constant series to series.
The kind of starter the Cardinals had in Jeff Suppan, and the kind of starter the Cardinals crave to make them more consistent as a starter this season.
“Comes from a really tough competitive league over there, in the American League,” Cardinals right-hander Miles Mikolas said. “He knows how to pitch in big spots, and he knows how to pitch against big bats. So, I think it’s going to be exciting to watch him pitch in some Cardinal red.”
Against some of the big bats that usually back him, Montgomery was as advertised. The lefty allowed a single to Aaron Judge in the first inning, and then kept the slugger grounded to complete three scoreless innings. Montgomery got seven of his first eight outs on the ground, and he finished five innings with nine groundouts. Montgomery tested his former teammates with sinker after sinker — and his current teammates turned them into outs.
At one point during the game, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina had to have some of the technology swapped for his PitchCom system. Boone said the widespread use of that to call pitches all but eliminated the need for the Yankees to change some of their signs with Montgomery on the other side of the field.
“I don’t think he knew our offensive signs,” Boone said.
Hicks builds a bridge with bounce-back outing
Still trying to elbow his way into a role with the Cardinals’ bullpen, former closer Jordan Hicks relieved Montgomery for a pivotal inning and a chance to rebound. In his previous appearance, during the doubleheader sweep of the Cubs, Hicks walked two batters and misplaced the lead. He got the win, but only after losing it for Quintana.
Thrust into a one-run game with another newcomer’s lead to hold, Hicks did.
The right-hander drew the top of the Yankees’ order in the sixth inning, and got through it with a popup from Judge and a strikeout from Josh Donaldson. Hicks struck out three total in his 1 1/3 innings, threw five of the fastest pitches in baseball on Saturday night, and was unfazed by a walk and wild pitch that put the potential tying run at second.
Another Arenado hot shot play at hot corner
Three of the six hardest hit pitches from Montgomery were groundouts, and Arenado handled two of them, none better than a sizzler from his third base contemporary Donaldson.
The first inning was Montgomery’s unsteadies, and with one out he had to pitch around a single and a walk. His pitch counter to bloat a bit. Gleyber Torres turned on a pitch for a 98-mph exit velocity. Arenado went to his left, glove the grounder, and started the double play to end the inning. The play to start the fourth inning was even sharp. Donaldson pulled a sinker from Montgomery down the third-base line. The ball left Donaldson’s bat at 98.3 mph.
When it met Arenado’s glove it came to halt.
But it’s speedy trip was not over, just redirected.
Arenado dove to his left, backhanded the hotshot grounder, and then pivoted on his right knee to sling the ball across the diamond. He never got to his feet, and still the throw beat Donaldson by more than a foot.
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