PHOENIX — During a memorable visit to Arizona, one for the record books and scrapbooks, the Cardinals won a game with their two MVP candidates in starring roles and another with Albert Pujols as showstopper. In consecutive games, they had players surpass records once owned by icons Yogi Berra and Stan Musial.
But beyond the spotlight, the bullpen stretched, leaving it limited, maybe even exposed, for the last act of a three-day series.
Taking stock of the arms available at the end of a weekend without All-Star closer Ryan Helsley, one reliever recognized if he had to make a cameo, it could be crucial.
“Every guy likes to play GM and manager in their head and try to figure out who is going to go in and in what situation,” said Chris Stratton, a veteran acquired at the trade deadline. “I’ve gotten caught off guard before in certain situations in my career in the bullpen. What you learn through experience is never be caught off guard. I was ready for it. Our team needed some length, and I tried to do the best I could.”
Paired with Jake Woodford for the pivotal role of carrying a one-run game through middle innings left unattended, Stratton did all the Cardinals needed.
Stratton’s scene-stealing 2? scoreless innings followed by Woodford’s 1? scoreless stalled the Arizona Diamondbacks long enough for the Cardinals to rally for a 6-4 victory Sunday at Chase Field and complete a series sweep. The Cardinals’ seventh consecutive win was not the pulse-pounding blockbuster of Saturday’s 16-7 win. It wasn’t even a satisfactory sequel. It was the subtle short, maybe an indy darling. A day after four hits and two homers, Pujols contributed a pinch-hit single. Nolan Arenado didn’t match Saturday’s dazzling defense because he didn’t even play defense Sunday. At designated hitter, he did punch the two-run, strike-single that flipped a deficit in the seventh inning for a comeback made possible by contributions around the roster.
This wasn’t a raucous encore. It was an ensemble.
“That’s an easy game there where you lose it 4-3, 4-2 or whatever, and you go get on the plane, take two of three, and feel OK about it,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “But the guys were relentless. They were not going to give in.”
Said Arenado: “We’re playing tough. If we lose the lead, we still fight back. It’s great to see those things from us. I feel like early in the year, if we got down, it was hard for us to rally. Right now, it’s not. I think it’s because we have confidence in ourselves that we can win any game.”
The only thing shorter for the Cardinals than starter Jose Quintana’s outing Sunday was Marmol’s presence — and, arguably, his patience.
Sparked by Lars Nootbaar’s first career leadoff homer, the Cardinals struck for a 3-0 lead before Arizona got an out. That lead started to leak when Quintana had trouble pegging the strike zone. He was not alone. The Cardinals felt home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor had missed a few calls that warped counts on the lefty and added to his troubles. Quintana walked two and allowed three singles in the second inning as Arizona knotted the game, 3-3.
In the third, the Cardinals benefited with two walks from Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly. Arenado stood at the plate and took a pitch that was off the inside edge of the plate, according to replays and MLB.com’s Gameday. Bucknor called the ball a strike.
Marmol called that decision something unprintable.
With a dramatic point, Bucknor tossed Marmol from the game. With six innings to make up for in that moment, Marmol charged onto the field to expand on his opinion.
“I didn’t like his smirk when I got out there,” the Cardinals’ first-year manager said. “And then he questioned my time in the league. And so I returned the favor and questioned his time in the league.”
In the bottom of that inning, Arizona turned a catcher’s interference into the run that broke the tie and chased Quintana from the game. Stone Garrett’s swing whacked Andrew Knizner’s left hand and mitt for the interference. Knizner said after the game he looked down “to see if my hand was still there. It was.” He had a bruise, an error, and then Quintana had an escape route. He got a double play, but Jordan Luplow’s RBI single broke the 3-3 tie.
Quintana walked the next batter and then faced no more.
In the third inning, the game had reached the Cardinals bullpen. When the bullpen phone rang, Stratton presumed it would be him. That assignment: “Get us as deep as I could.”
He stranded the two runners he inherited and retired eight consecutive.
Woodford did the same — stranding the two runners he inherited before getting four consecutive outs in economical enough fashion he may start a game Tuesday. Genesis Cabrera finished the seventh, breezed through the eighth, and handed a lead to Giovanny Gallegos to close for his 12th save. The Cardinals swept a series without Helsley, who is on paternity leave, throwing a pitch.
“This is the first time (this season) I didn’t see the same arm out of the ‘pen,’” said Arizona infielder Josh Rojas. “I didn’t see the same arm twice out of the bullpen. I feel like not many teams have enough guys. This series was different. They had guys for the matchup, and I saw Cabrera for the first time.”
Said Kelly: The Cardinals “play hard from the first pitch till the last pitch.”
Most of the pitches he made in between kept the Cardinals quiet. Arizona’s right-hander strung zeroes from the second through his final inning, the sixth. In the seventh inning, the Diamondbacks went to the bullpen, and here comes that man again. Pujols. Less than 24 hours after a singular performance by a 42-year-old that put him between Musial and Hank Aaron for career total bases, Pujols pinch-hit in the seventh. He delivered a single that set the bases in motion for Arenado’s game-winning single.
Arenado faced reliever Kevin Ginkel, who brings the heat. It’s a dry heat. Looking for a low fastball, Arenado fell behind 0-2 before connecting on a 99 mph fastball for a liner to right that scored two.
“We just found a way to win,” Stratton said.
It wasn’t a win bronzed with history or beaming with highlights. It wasn’t one dominated by the starter or overwhelmed by the starters. It wasn’t the Cardinals at their best.
It was, in that way, better.
They didn’t need to be to win.
“It just shows what kind of team you have when you do that,” Marmol said. “It’s no different than a pitcher not having his best stuff and still giving you six innings. Your ability to still find a way to scratch a run here or there and different guys in the bullpen step up. Good teams find a way to do that rather than go home just winning a series when you can sweep it.”
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