By Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
CINCINNATI — The ongoing education of Jaime Garcia continues for the St. Louis Cardinals as the young lefty with top-end talent is trying to learn how to win when he can’t get a grip on his stuff and the game feels inches out of his reach.
Wednesday presented a literal example.
A bunt by Cincinnati infielder Wilson Valdez barely got past Garcia in the fifth inning and pushed home the tying run, setting the Reds up for a 4-3, last-swing victory at Great American Ball Park. Pinch-hitter Chris Heisey’s walk-off single in the ninth scored Joey Votto for the winning run, but it was the bunt that typified how the game eluded Garcia’s grasp.
“That’s a ball that I have to get,” he said. “I have to make that out.”
The Cardinals head home for the first time this season having won five of seven on their opening road trip, including both series against division rivals Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Fresh from spring training, their recipe for success has included early leads, power and starting pitching. They got two of the three Wednesday. Center fielder Jon Jay’s first homer of the season was part of a three-run third inning that gave the Cardinals their sixth early lead in seven games. It was the first lead they would give up this season when Garcia (1-1) became the first starter not to complete the fifth inning.
A quick turnaround from Tuesday’s night game gave manager Mike Matheny cause to rest two regulars and a calf injury to Lance Berkman meant a third was shelved. The lineup was without six homers and 14 RBIs from Carlos Beltran and David Freese and a .375 hitter in Berkman. That put the onus on Garcia, who brought to the game a 6-1 record with a 3.13 ERA in his career against the Reds.
“You came in hoping to steal one,” Matheny said. “It wasn’t smooth or easy really from the beginning.”
As Garcia enters his third full season as part of the rotation, the lefty and his coaches have described the next steps of his maturation. First on the list is a poise that doesn’t get rattled by peripheral issues — former pitching coach Dave Duncan once described how late room service would aggravate Garcia — or allowing an inning to unravel. In his first start of the season, Garcia coolly escaped first-inning trouble and rolled through six innings.
Second is an evolution from a five-inning pitcher to a quality-start juggernaut. That means commanding innings without the best stuff.
On Wednesday, Garcia skirted trouble in each of the first three innings. In the third, the first three batters reached, including Votto with an RBI double. But Garcia didn’t get flustered. He struck out consecutive batters and got a grounder to strand two runners in scoring position and preserve a 3-1 lead. In the fourth he sandwiched two strikeouts around a sacrifice after Valdez’s first bunt single of the game.
“Every time I go out there I want to go deep,” Garcia said. “This is a tough one. I wasn’t able to finish guys off. I was getting ahead. Every time I would get two strikes or a strike and they were getting hits. That’s something to work on.”
The Reds laced 11 hits off Garcia.
The shortest one might have been the biggest.
With Votto on third in the fifth inning, Valdez repeated his previous bunt. Garcia fell off the third-base side of the mound and slipped as he tried to recover. The ball got by him. Valdez was safe, Votto had scored, and the game was tied. Garcia was replaced, one out shy of five innings.
“You’d like to see him get through that fifth inning, and in general he’s going to do that,” Matheny said. “The second (bunt) shouldn’t surprise you. He needs to be aware of it too because they’re going to capitalize on it unless he can make that play.”
With Reds starter Johnny Cueto also gone after five innings and three runs, two on Jon Jay’s homer, a battle of the bullpens commenced. The Cardinals got two scoreless innings from Kyle McClellan. The Reds got dominance from Aroldis Chapman. The high-octane lefty struck out five of the seven batters he faced, unnerving the Cardinals with a 97 mph fastball.
Chapman’s scoreless eighth and ninth bought time for the offense to find an opening in the Cardinals’ bullpen. Votto started it with his fourth hit of the game, a leadoff double off Marc Rzepczynski in the ninth. Two batters later, Fernando Salas came in to face pinch hitter Heisey. He roped a single to the left-center gap to send the Cardinals back to Busch Stadium with only their second loss.
It’s taken Zack Greinke’s best as a Brewer and a ninth-inning rally in Cincy to defeat them.
“Those are our biggest opponents in our division and to win both series on the road, you’d have to count that as pretty good,” Holliday said. “To win a series here and Milwaukee early or later it’s still good, it counts the same.”