CLEVELAND — All of the offense the Cleveland Guardians generated in a single bound was too much for the Cardinals to match despite chance after chance after chance.
The Cardinals got the tying run at least to the plate in each of the final four innings Friday night at Progressive Field and all they mustered was a couple of sacrifice flies. That was enough to push Shane Bieber from the game but not enough to take advantage of the opportunities he or the Guardians’ bullpen left scattered through the final innings of a 4-3 loss.
In the sixth, the potential tying did not get out of the batter’s box.
In the seventh, the Cardinals left the bases loaded.
In the eighth, a double play unplugged the rally. And in the ninth, Lars Nootbaar’s third hit of the game brought home a run and got the tying run into scoring position. And there he watched as Cleveland closer Emmanuel Clase secured his 17th save with consecutive strikeouts. On Clase’s full-count cutter, Nolan Gorman was turning to take a walk when home plate umpire Chris Guccione called strike three to end the game.
People are also reading…
The Cardinals entered the interleague meeting expecting scarce offense and prizing runs, but they were also eager to see if the game revealed something just as a valuable: a starter to consider. Rookie Matthew Liberatore earned the start and the chance to win consideration for upcoming starts, if not a spot in the rotation. Each of Liberatore’s two starts this season have come against a surefire ace. He matched pitches with Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, the NL’s 2021 Cy Young Award winner, in his first start in the majors this season, and on Friday, he drew Cleveland’s Shane Bieber, the AL’s 2020 Cy Young Award winner. Both pitchers also finished seventh in the voting for their league’s 2022 Cy Young award.
“You’re looking at a guy who knows how to pitch,” manager Oliver Marmol said before the game. “And at any point he could click and roll through any lineup.”
Bieber (4-3) did for five innings and was out by the end of the seventh.
The matchup against the American League’s Guardians figures to be a favorable one for the Cardinals. The Cleveland lineup does not strike out much, and the Cardinals rotation does not strike out many. The Guardians’ 19.4% strikeout rate is the lowest in the AL, the second-lowest in the majors. The Cardinals’ rotation has the fifth-lowest strikeout rate (19.1%) in the majors, and only Colorado is lower in the NL.
The Guardians like to make contact.
The Cardinals like to invite weak contact.
And for the entirety of Liberatore’s start the Guardians’ complied. The lefty struck out only two batters, and the Cardinals defense — winner of back-to-back team Gold Glove awards — was put to work. With the first out of the third inning, six different fielders had already been involved in an out for Liberatore.
Cleveland’s rally came in a burst of four successive hits in the fifth inning, Liberatore’s final inning. All of the hits came with no outs as they staked Bieber to a four-run lead.
Rally sputters for middling middle order
Two of the Cardinals who took slumps — both big and small — into their day off Thursday did not have to wait long for Friday’s game to find them and test them.
Down by four runs after the Guardians’ outburst against Liberatore, the Cardinals opened the sixth inning with back-to-back singles from Nootbaar and Paul Goldschmidt. Only an excellent fielding play at first base by Josh Naylor kept Gorman from a double. That brought the game to the middle of the Cardinals order and the slumps therein.
Cleanup hitter Nolan Arenado began the series at Progressive Field on a 0-for-10 stretch with six strikeouts bundled in there.
No. 5 hitter Willson Contreras entered 0 for 19.
Both got the day off Thursday in Cincinnati ostensibly because the coaching staff saw fatigue sagging their swings — or wanted to avoid such a thing. With one out and two teammates in scoring position, Arenado had the first crack at chewing into the Guardians’ lead and mussing up Bieber’s tidy line. The Cardinals third baseman lifted for a sacrifice fly that did not add to his 0-for-12 skid. It also did not end it. (In the eighth inning, Arenado’s deep drive to left field was caught at the wall by a leaping Steven Kwan.)
In the sixth, Contreras only prolonged his.
The Cardinals catcher grounded out to first base to end the top of the sixth inning and leave him 0 for 22 going into the latter innings of the evening. His batting average has cratered from .273 to .224 in 16 games.
Cardinals chase Bieber, cannot capitalize
All it took to nudge Bieber out of the game was two successive walks.
A single base hit would have really made things interesting.
Brendan Donovan opened the seventh inning with a single, took second on a groundout, got to third on a wild pitch and then scored on Alec Burleson’s sacrifice fly. All of that was before Cleveland’s ace walked two with two outs and, thus, was not around to get a third. Bieber walked Tommy Edman and Nootbaar. Reliever Trevor Stephan took Goldschmidt to a full count before walking him to load the bases.
The Cardinal with the most go-ahead RBIs (10), most game-winning RBIs (seven) and just the most RBIs (40) on the team, Gorman had a chance to add to that total and erase the two-run lead Bieber left in jeopardy. Gorman’s RBI in Thursday’s game at Cincinnati made him the second NL player this season with 40 RBIs, joining the Mets’ Pete Alonso. Gorman would not add to that total.
Stephan got a popup to end the inning.
Cleveland rocks Liberatore, rolls
The Cardinals’ rookie lefty piloted the game into the fifth inning without his best command, and still he kept the Guardians scoreless. He pitched around a walk and a single in the third inning with some help from a diving play by Edman to keep a ball in the infield.
The lefty showed the mix that made him so successful against the Brewers. He touched 97.5 mph with his four-seam fastball and 96.8 mph with his sinker while dropping in a handful of curveballs. In his first at-bat against Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, Liberatore greeted him with a 96.4 mph fastball and then a 77.5 mph curveball. Ramirez grounded out on a fastball. But through Liberatore’s first 33 pitches, 16 were balls, and an inability to consistently land his breaking ball would catch up with him.
Liberatore opened the fifth by hitting a batter.
The next four Guardians all got hits off Liberatore. Two of the singles came on sinkers, and the other two, including a bases-clearing double, came on the slider. Shortstop Amed Rosario, part of the return from the Mets for Francisco Lindor, cleared the bases when he lined a slider to left field for a three-run double. All four runs Cleveland scored for Bieber in the fifth inning came in the span of five batters.
They were an island around which Liberatore carved a moat of outs.
He retired the final three batters of his fifth and final inning just as he retired all three batters he faced in the fourth inning. When he came undone, it happened fast, and then he put it back together before a reliever had to clean up. Liberatore finished the game allowing four runs on five hits — four of which came in that fifth inning.
@dgoold on Twitter