By HAL McCOY
The St. Louis Cardinals, under new management, didn’t play much better Sunday afternoon than they had the previous two games — just good enough to pin a 6-4 defeat on the Cincinnati Reds.
After displaying gruesome fundamentals and an abysmal bullpen during two straight losses to the Reds, 9-1 and 8-2, the Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny after Saturday’s game.
Bench coach Mike Shildt was handed the interim manager label for Sunday’s game and was presented with the victory, one that avoided a Reds sweep.
The Cardinals did a lot of the same things that got Matheny fired with mental blunders and faux pas defensive plays, but the difference on this day was home run power, contributions from unlikely sources and bullpen work by John Gant.
The game began ominously for Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani when his first pitch was drilled 407 feet for a home run, the 20th time in his career he has stroked a leadoff home run.
Dexter Fowler, hitting .174 and pretty much in Matheny’s doghouse, started the game in right field and cracked a second-inning home run to make it 2-0. General Manager Paul Mozeliak and Matheny recently criticized Fowler for lack of hustle.
The Reds were facing All-Star pitcher Miles Mikolas, who pitched the previous three years in Japan before the Cardinals signed him to a two-year $15 million deal. He entered the game 10-3 with a 2.65 earned run average.
But he gave up three runs and five hits in the fourth inning as the Reds barged ahead, 3-2. With the bases loaded and no outs, Adam Duvall missed the team’s 10th grand slam home run by inches as the ball sailed just inside the left field foul pole, almost scraping yellow paint. Instead of four RBI, Duvall contributed a two-run single to left field to tie it, 2-2.
Then came a couple of misplays by the Cardinals. Reds pitcher Anthony DeSclafani laid down a bunt and Mikolas was late fielding it and throwing it and DeSclafani beat it to load the bases.
Jose Peraza then hit one back to the mound that hit off Mikolas’ hand that he couldn’t field that turned into an infield hit and RBI for Peraza and a 3-2 Reds lead. Peraza finished the series with 11 hits, at least five of the infield variety and a couple of them bloop singles. The 11 hits are a club record for a three-game series.
After Peraza’s infield hit, Scooter Gennett hit a pop foul that third baseman Jedd Gyorko lost in the sun and it fell harmlessly to the ground. Amazingly, Gyorko had a pair of sun glasses on top of his hat. And even when he lost that ball, he did not put the sun glasses on.
The Cardinals escaped that mental blunder when Gennett grounded out with the bases loaded to end the inning at 3-2 for the Reds.
Given the 3-2 lead, DeSclafani went out for the bottom of the fourth and immediately gave up four runs. The big blow was a two-run single by Tommy Pfam, who was 0 for 21 at the time and entered the game only because center fielder Harrison Bader suffered a leg injury earlier in the game.
That gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead. They scored their fifth run on a ground ball. Sal Romano, a starter, entered the game in the fourth.
With first base open, the Reds walked pinch-hitter Jose Martinez intentionally to face Yadier Molina. Molina takes offense at that disrespect and pulled a run-scoring single to left field to make it 6-3.
DeSclafani lasted only 3 1/3 innings and gave up six runs and five hits, retiring only 10 batters.
The major difference on this day for the Cardinals was the relief work of John Gant. In the previous two games, the Reds had scored 14 runs on 20 hits in eight innings against the Cardinals bullpen.
Gant took over in the fourth inning and was impeccable and untouchable with four hitless innings that included two walks and four strikeouts.
New manager Shildt then sent rookie Jordan Hicks to the mound to close it out instead of the team’s closer, Bud Norris, who has 17 saves. Norris was not available due to recent use.
Hick’s pitched in Saturday’s game and gave up four runs, four hits, a walk and a hit batsman in one-third of an inning.
He easily retired Alex Blandino and Billy Hamilton and then tempted fate. He gave up a single to Jose Peraza, his franchise record 11th hit of the series.
Peraza took second uncontested on a pitch to Scooter Gennett and Gennett then singled him home to make it 6-4. That gave Joey Votto a chance to tie it with one swing of the bat, but that swing ended up as a game-ending ground ball to second base.
That gave Hicks his second save of the season.
While the Reds lost the final game, they did win the series and they are 6-1-1 in their last eight series.
The Reds finished their pre-All-Star break with a 5-and-4 trip to Chicago (Cubs), Cleveland and St. Louis) and rest during the break 10 games under .500 at 43-53.