MILWAUKEE — It took two monster swings by rookie Nolan Gorman to put just enough distance between the Cardinals and Milwaukee for the visitors to get a chance to flaunt the best they can bring out of their bullpen.
On his way to four hits and four RBIs, Gorman hit two home runs — one to break a tie and the other to extend the Cardinals’ lead. His 428-foot smash toward the scoreboard in center field at American Family Field snapped a 2-2 tie and opened the way for the Cardinals to get as many outs as they could from their relief tandem, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley. The Cardinals’ combo closers collected the final 12 outs in a 6-2 victory Tuesday.
The win moved the Cardinals back into a tie for first place in the NL Central, level with Milwaukee, at 39-31.
Before Gorman seized the headlines and the relievers earned the spotlight, the stage was set for Jack Flaherty to make a significant stride back from injury. He stalled. The right-hander had difficulty maintaining command of innings and at-bats, eventually walking five Brewers and having to tiptoe through lengthy innings just to keep Milwaukee from capitalizing on his gifts. Flaherty completed three innings and was seen in the dugout spiking things in apparent frustration.
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Rookie Zack Thompson earned his first major-league win and was the first reliever into the void. He started the six scoreless innings from the bullpen with 1 2/3 in immediate relief of Flaherty. With the bullpen getting a grip on the game, Gorman’s second homer doubled the Cardinals’ lead, and his eighth-inning RBI single punctuated his game by tying a career high for RBIs and hits, marks set earlier this season against Milwaukee.
He’s the 12th Cardinal to have a two-homer game in his first 29 games, and he’s the first Cardinal to do so since Albert Pujols in 2001.
Flaherty searches for control to return
Beyond giving his right shoulder time to clear the irritation that limited his throwing all winter, a primary focus of Flaherty’s rehab over the past three months has been restoring the mechanics he had before last year’s series of injuries. Flaherty and the Cardinals felt the oblique strain that interrupted his season a year ago also led to an erosion of his delivery, whether to protect against pain or just a series of changes compounding over time.
A working theory was that change contributed to the irritation.
“We felt if we cleaned that up,” Flaherty said earlier this season, “a lot of this would go away. … It’s been a work in progress to refine some things.”
Encouraged enough by the results during his rehab starts, Flaherty moved back to the majors, and on Tuesday, in his second start this season for the Cardinals, he had innings where it looked like he was still searching for that consistent delivery. He’d veer to the first-base side at times and go more direct, short to the plate other times. The results were as inconsistent.
Of his 71 pitches, more than half (36) were balls.
Five pitches into the start, Flaherty walked a batter. Nine pitches in and he had allowed a two-run homer. He walked the third batter of the game on four pitches. Two of the first three Brewers of the game walked, and seven of the eight pitches that missed the strike zone were fastballs. Rowdy Tellez had two plate appearances against Flaherty and saw seven pitches before Flaherty got a pitch in the strike zone. Tellez walked twice — on nine pitches, total.
Flaherty was able to minimize the trouble he invited at a ballpark that has been inhospitable to him in the past. In seven previous starts at American Family Field (formerly Miller Park), Flaherty had a 5.82 ERA. Of the three walks he issued in the first inning, only one scored. The Brewers tagged him for two hits in the second inning, but not one of those baserunners scored. In the third, Flaherty walked the first two batters of the inning, and yet the Brewers did nothing with that gift. Flaherty’s one strikeout helped him keep the Brewers to the two runs on the homer and nothing else.
It took 26 of Flaherty’s 71 pitches to complete the first inning. He got nine outs from 16 batters faced, and he finished with five walks.
Cardinals showcase their version of decisive relief
The Brewers got a chance to use arguably the best one-two, right-left combo in baseball to hold a 2-0 shutout Monday night. Devin Williams, the St. Louis native with the otherworldly changeup, pitched the eighth, and Josh Hader, the game’s longstanding dominant lefty, secured a 20th save in the ninth. On Tuesday, it was the Cardinals turn to show off their late-inning tandem.
The Brewers have established dominance.
The Cardinals counter with developing versatility — and length.
What the Brewers’ duo did for two innings Monday, the Cardinals’ version did for four innings Tuesday. Gallegos, the team’s closer to start this season, took over the game in the sixth inning. He retired all six batters he faced, including two with fly balls caught at the right-field warning track. When the middle of the Brewers’ order came up in the eighth, Helsley met it and pitched perfect eighth. Their innings could flip by Thursday and they could shrink back to one-inning or two-batter assignments — if a lead is there to hold.
Call him ‘No-Doubter’ Gorman
There was no question when rookie Gorman connected in the fourth inning for the home run that broke a 2-2 tie. There hasn’t been yet on any of his homers.
Not even the second one he hit Tuesday night.
The top power prospect at almost every level he’s played, from prep baseball in Arizona to the Class AAA game in Memphis, Gorman arrived in the majors with a long-drive reputation. He had yet to hit a home run that’s traveled less than 400 feet until leading off the seventh inning Tuesday with his second homer of the evening. It traveled 396 feet. As a teammate recently said, “When he gets one, it’s gone.” And it’s really gone.
Gorman’s first home run in Milwaukee went to straightaway center and bounced off the batter’s eye an estimated 428 feet away from home plate. At Fenway Park over the weekend, Gorman hit another dead-center homer that went 440 feet.
Assistant hitting coach Turner Ward said he could remember only seeing one ball hit as far into the Fenway outfield seats as Gorman’s.
And that wasn’t even his longest homer — he has a 449-foot blast.
Gorman’s first five home runs would have left every ballpark in the majors, according to Baseball Savant. He’s averaged 428.8 feet per home run on those five, and among hitters with at least five homers this season that put his average distance third in the majors, behind Ronald Acuna Jr. (436.1 feet) and Jesus Sanchez (430.0 feet). As his second homer of the evening landed in the Cardinals’ bullpen, Gorman’s average distances went down as the Cardinals’ lead went up.
Swapping runs in prolonged first inning
Knowing that each team would likely ask its bullpen to carry at least half of Tuesday’s ballgame, the first inning dragged on long enough to suggest it might be sooner than planned and the game could trudge later into the evening heat. Both starters meandered through a lengthy first inning to arrive at the same spot — with a 2-2 tie by the second.
The Cardinals welcomed Chi Chi Gonzalez to the National League Central with three hits in the first inning, including a double down the third-base line by Nolan Arenado. The Cardinals took a 2-0 lead on Juan Yepez’s RBI groundout and Gorman’s RBI single. Gonzalez faced six batters, and after getting an out on his first pitch needed 19 to get the other two. Flaherty matched him by facing six batters, though Flaherty goosed the Brewers’ offense with three walks. One scored. The two-run homer by Adames on Flaherty’s ninth pitch tied the game, 2-2.