Standings remain the same, but changes afoot for Cardinals after loss to Brewers

Standings remain the same, but changes afoot for Cardinals after loss to Brewers

MILWAUKEE — The Cardinals reached the finale of a four-game visit and last swing through Milwaukee until late September with a chance to do what they had not previously — put a little smidge of distance between them and their division rival.

Through 36 innings at American Family Field, 29 runs and two pitchers getting their first major-league wins, the series left the teams where they started, caught in a staring contest atop the National League Central waiting for the first bullpen that blinks.

The standings remained the same.

The Cardinals, however, are undergoing change.

Dakota Hudson could not dodge trouble forever and allowed two home runs that misplaced leads and tilted the game toward the Brewers. Reliever Drew VerHagen failed to retire any of the three batters he faced so that Milwaukee added cushion for a 6-4 victory Thursday.

For the third time this season, the Cardinals entered the final game of a four-game series against Milwaukee with a chance to win the series and did not. Splitsville. One run separated them over four days. Through the first 12 games against each other this season, the division leaders are 6-6, and they finished this series as it started, with each team having the same record (40-32). Socks aren’t as evenly matched as the Brewers and Cardinals.

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“I’d like to play them every day,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “Honestly, I’d love to play them 100 and whatever times. I like the style of play that we have. I like playing them. I enjoy the overall competition, the way our rosters matchup. It’s a good team over there. They’re managed well. They have good pieces.”

Marmol will be moving some of his around.

On the seven-game road trip that began at Fenway Park, the Cardinals’ need for a new look to middle relief became acute. Twice in Boston, the Cardinals rallied late against the Red Sox only to have runs allowed in the middle innings prove the difference. There would be no such rally Thursday against Milwaukee’s vaunted bullpen, but the run allowed as a result of VerHagen’s struggles increased the unlikelihood of reversing the game.

Young pitchers Johan Oviedo and Zack Thompson emerged over the past week as compelling options for the middle relief. Two days after earning a win, Thompson retired all three batters he faced Thursday to inch a 5-4 game into the eighth inning. That’s the game VerHagen inherited as the veteran reliever the Cardinals have turned to again and again to be a bridge to late innings. He allowed a single and walked two — one on four pitches — to gift the Brewers their final run.

“Drew has really good stuff,” Marmol said before meeting privately with the right-hander. “We need to see consistency with it and embrace competition. Tough league. You have to embrace the moment when you need to get three guys out without letting a run come in. You can’t just rely on your stuff at this level. You’ve got to develop it. You’ve got to be able to understand what your opponent wants to do against you and combat that.

“We’ve got some growing to do.”

What was true for the late inning also applied to the early innings.

The Cardinals took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first when the Brewers played Paul Goldschmidt’s double into a run all the way home for him. Goldschmidt pulled a pitch into the left-field corner, deep enough for Nolan Gorman to score from first. The ill-advised throw home to try and get Gorman allowed Goldschmidt to reach third, and when pitcher Jason Alexander whipped the ball toward third his throw went wide and back into left field. Yadda yadda yadda, Goldschmidt scored and Hudson had a lead.

Milwaukee cleaved it in half in the first, but it wasn’t until the third that Hudson really invited trouble. Three times in eight innings, the Cardinals allowed the Brewers to load the bases before getting an out. Twice Hudson did it.

“It’s just noncompetitive,” Marmol said. “You can’t do that in the big leagues. Pretty simple.”

Hudson slipped free of the first jam with a strikeout and a double play, but his tempo had already slowed, his fastball drifting up. Two of his three walks came in the fourth inning. Right fielder Lars Nootbaar’s throw home and rookie Ivan Herrera’s tag gave Hudson an out in the fourth with the bases loaded. It didn’t last. Four pitches later, Tyrone Taylor drilled a three-run homer to overtake the Cardinals, 4-2. Taylor’s homer was the first against Hudson in 46 1/3 consecutive innings, ending the fifth-longest streak this year in the majors.

Hudson did not get an inning before allowing a second one. Willy Adames led off the fifth with a solo homer off Hudson to widen that lead and hasten Hudson’s exit.

“I was one pitch, a groundball away from getting out of that,” Hudson said of the fourth inning. “It really wasn’t all that bad until some poorly timed homers. And that’s what cost us the lead. We just never got it back.”

After his homer, Adames donned a replica of Marvel villain Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet and rang the Happy Hour bell in the Brewers’ dugout.

What followed was inevitable.

Same as they did Monday night, the Brewers funneled their lead to their relief aces, setup man Devin Williams and closer Josh Hader. In the series, they pitched in both wins and got 12 outs from 12 Cardinals faced. Hader’s perfect ninth Thursday collected his 21st save of the season, made a winner of  Alexander, and moved the Brewers back into a tie for the division lead. But the series was hardly about nothing.

Nolan Arenado doubled twice to finish the road trip with five two-hit games and a home run at each stop. While Williams and Hader reinforced the benefit of having a lead in the seventh inning to avoid seeing them, the Cardinals gave the Brewers a long look at their late-game relief. Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley and Giovanny Gallegos each pitched two scoreless innings in the Cardinals’ two wins. How the Cardinals get games to that trio and who can be the arms to do it started to shift in this series.

Nothing reveals a flaw quite like looking across the field into a mirror.

The rivals don’t face each other again until after the trade deadline.

“That’s why I would love to play them 162 times,” Marmol said. “This is baseball. This is fun — the back and forth. You’re playing a seven-inning game of constantly who can get there up by one. You’re constantly playing that game of wearing somebody out to get them in an inning before they need to because they don’t have that answer for the middle. Just the strategy that goes into that constantly is fun.

“That’s what I mean by I’d like to play them 162 times.”

#Standings #remain #afoot #Cardinals #loss #Brewers

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