By Rick Hummel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
ST. LOUIS—How many of the National League’s top five pitchers in victories this season have spent nearly three weeks exiled to the bullpen? The answer to that one, of course, is one—Lance Lynn of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lynn, who actually gained one of his wins in relief, posted his team-high 16th triumph Wednesday night, three off the league lead, as he and a quartet of relievers thwarted the Houston Astros 5-0 before a paid house of 39,062 at Busch Stadium.
Now 16-7, Lynn allowed just three hits and two walks and only once allowed the Astros two runners in the same inning as he worked 6;1/3 scoreless frames atop his six-inning, one-run effort last week upon emerging from the bullpen in Los Angeles. Lynn earned his second straight victory as a starter after not having won a start previously since July 27.
His win lifted the Cardinals two games ahead of the Dodgers in the race for the second wild-card spot, with the Milwaukee Brewers another half game in arrears. And there was historic proportion.
David Freese and Yadier Molina belted their 20th home runs, making this the first Cardinals team to have five swatsmiths with 20 or more homers. Carlos Beltran (29), Matt Holliday (27) and Allen Craig (21) already were in the house.
Molina, further cementing his candidacy for the National League Most Valuable Player award, became the first Cardinals catcher to hit 20 or more homers in a season since Ted Simmons had 21 in 1980.
Lynn was an All-Star who didn’t appear in the All-Star Game in mid-July, but he is a different pitcher now. He had to be, or he probably still would be in the bullpen.
Manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist wanted Lynn to be more consistent in his delivery and more resistant to distractions, among other things.
“There was a major overhaul,” said Matheny. “I think he learned about his demeanor. He went out actively trying to figure out a lot of things. He spent a lot of time with Chris Carpenter and talking about the finer points of your demeanor, of your tempo, how you hold yourself on the mound.
“Those seem like very small issues, but they have a lot to do with your overall game. He didn’t go down to the bullpen and sulk. He tried to figure out to make himself better.”
On the mechanical side, Lynn shortened his windup, not unnecessarily going over his head before continuing his delivery.
Lilliquist said, “A lot things needed to be tweaked. He’s done a good job to this point coming back as a starter. It was a little refresher course down there.”
Lynn, after allowing a leadoff double to Jose Altuve, retired the next three hitters, two on fly balls and one on a strikeout, which was no mean feat. Entering the game, Lynn had had an 8.31 earned run average for the first inning.
The Astros had two runners on against Lynn only in the fourth, which Lynn exited by getting Brandon Laird to hit a forceout grounder.
In trying to explain his metamorphosis, Lynn said, “I got away from what I was all about early in the season. I was attacking guys and trying to get ahead and make them hit my pitch.
“(But) I started nibbling and throwing breaking balls and offspeed pitches. Everything was snowballing on me.”
If he misfires on a couple of pitches now, or if there is a bad break behind him, Lynn isn’t acting as if somebody stole his lunch money. More stoicism, less exasperation.
“That’s part of the learning process,” said Lynn. “You’re going to have your times where you have bad outings. You’ve just got not to let everyone know that you’re not feeling good. They see that and they’re going to keep coming after you.”
First-year starter Lynn, 25, admitted he had paid attention to his pitching elders. “They’ve been a big help, all of them,” he said. “When you’re a younger player in this game, you’ve got to learn from those guys because you never know what they teach you that might help you be something you want to be.”
While Lynn did not sulk, according to Matheny, he didn’t exactly go to the bullpen willingly. “You definitely aren’t happy,” he said, “but the reason I went was that I wasn’t pitching well. I definitely wasn’t happy but I needed to work on some things.”
Lucas Harrell had won three straight for Houston, and his 10-9 record stood out on a team that entered Wednesday night’s game 52 games under .500. And Harrell stood out in the Cardinals’ first inning, striking out Jon Jay, Beltran and Holliday.
But Harrell was solvable in the second. After Craig led off with a single, Molina flied to the warning track in left. Freese, five for 10 against Harrell in his career, drilled a two-run, 416-foot drive into the right-center-field seats and the Cardinals were ahead 2-0.
Less than half an hour later, Molina, five for nine against Harrell, joined Freese and friends by belting his 20th into the dead center-field greenery, giving the Cardinals a 3-0 lead in the fourth.
“He’s got everybody’s attention throughout the league now,” said Matheny.
Lynn, having gone over 100 pitches at 102, departed with one out in the seventh after giving up Laird’s double, which one-hopped the center-field wall. Accorded a standing ovation by the fans behind first, Lynn saluted them as he headed into the dugout.
Edward Mujica came in to replace Lynn, but Jay provided the most relief, dashing into left-center-field to pluck off Chris Snyder’s liner for the second out. Mujica then retired Jimmy Paredes on a grounder to second.
Eighth-inning specialist Mitchell Boggs had a much smoother ride than he had had the night before, striking out the side, to record his league-leading 31st “hold.”
Jason Motte recorded his 37th save in the ninth after inheriting a bases-loaded jam.