A couple hours before the Dodgers took the field Sunday night vying for a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, manager Dave Roberts was asked how it felt to be in first place in the National League West again.
“It’s OK,” he said. “For now.”
Then he nodded up to the television mounted on a wall in his office at Busch Stadium. It was set to the game between the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants. The Rockies were winning and would go on to win, temporarily moving into a tie with the Dodgers atop the division. A few hours later, the Dodgers lost 5-0, unable to score after a 17-run blitz Saturday. Their hold on first place lasted 24 hours. They’re half a game behind the Rockies, who visit Dodger Stadium for a three-game series starting Monday.
The result plunged the Dodgers into a tie with the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot. They completed their 10-game trip 6-4, gaining ground in the division and wild-card races despite dropping two of three games to the last-place Cincinnati Reds between two series victories over playoff contenders.
“For us to come in here,” Roberts said, “to win a series against a good club over there, we did what we wanted to accomplish.”
Sunday represented an opportunity to further bury a wild-card competitor but the offense mustered only four hits against right-hander Adam Wainwright (2-3), who delivered his best start of the season, and three relievers. Ross Stripling (8-4), pitching on short rest, gave up three runs across 31/3 innings in his second start since coming off the disabled list. Kenta Maeda surrendered an unearned run in the sixth inning. The Cardinals tacked a run on against Josh Fields in the eighth. That was enough even with Justin Turner back in the lineup appearing unhindered after getting drilled on the left wrist Saturday.
X-rays on Turner’s wrist were negative, but his availability depended on how the wrist felt Sunday. Turner took some swings when he arrived at the ballpark. He reported the wrist feeling sore, but not enough to force a day off. So he was back in the lineup Sunday, batting in his customary two-hole. He didn’t appear hampered in the first inning, when he slapped a one-out double down the right-field line against Wainwright. Turner, however, was left stranded at second base.
The Cardinals jumped out to a lead first instead. Marcell Ozuna provided it with a home run against Stripling to lead off the second inning. The 3-and-2 pitch was a 94-mph fastball down and away. It was not poorly located. Ozuna muscled the ball anyway to the right-center field seats for his 22nd home run.
“You just tip your cap on that one,” Stripling said.
Stripling threw 51 pitches against the Reds on Wednesday. Roberts said Stripling was booked to throw between 60 and 75 pitches Sunday. He ended up throwing 72 before he was chased during a hard-luck fourth inning. The frame began with Stripling striking out Yairo Munoz. But the pitch, a curveball in the dirt, bounced away from catcher Yasmani Grandal and Munoz reached base. Paul DeJong followed with a single to left field. Two batters later, the Cardinals orchestrated a hit-and-run with Jedd Gyorko in a 3-and-2 count and he smacked a run-scoring single to right field.
The sequence prompted a mound visit. Stripling was nearing his finish line, but he stayed in to face Yadier Molina with runners on the corners. Molina cracked the encounter’s first pitch for a run-scoring single to make it 3-0 and conclude Stripling’s night.
Switch-pitching Pat Venditte was called on to clean the mess with two on and one out. He entered to pitch left-handed against Kolten Wong, who popped out. Venditte then flipped to right-handed against Harrison Bader. He induced a groundball and escaped unscathed, extending his scoreless innings streak since rejoining the Dodgers to 72/3 in eight appearances.
Wainwright, meanwhile, bulldozed his previous limits. The 37-year-old right-hander was making his second start since spending four months on the disabled list because of an elbow injury. It was only his sixth start overall. He hadn’t thrown more than 93 pitches in an outing this season. But the veteran’s leash went longer than that Sunday as he grew stronger as his performance progressed. He exited after throwing 101 pitches over six innings to applause from the red-clad faithful. He struck out nine batters and walked three. His pinpoint command and dynamite curveball flummoxed the fastball-loving Dodgers.
“He’s a big-game pitcher,” Roberts said. “This guy, you got to expect his best and that’s what he brought. He knew how much that club needed that lift, that start.”
Before Wainwright handed the baton to the bullpen, the Cardinals padded their lead against Maeda in the sixth inning. Consecutive one-out singles brought up Molina. With the count at 2-and-2, the Cardinals called for another timely hit-and-run and Molina hit a chopper to third base. Turner was there, but he opted to field the ball to his side with Ozuna barreling toward him. The ball bounced off his glove and into left field. Ozuna scored to give St. Louis a 4-0 lead. Turner was charged with an error and Maeda was pulled. Left-hander Scott Alexander came in and induced an inning-ending double play with one pitch to evade further damage.
The Dodgers threatened to prey on the Cardinals bullpen immediately upon Wainwright’s departure. Bud Norris was the first reliever summoned. His outing was brief. He walked Grandal on six pitches to begin the frame. Then he threw a ball to Cody Bellinger and walked off the mound because of a blister, forcing the Cardinals to bring in the flame-throwing Jordan Hicks one pitch into the at-bat.
Hicks walked Bellinger before striking out Yasiel Puig, who went hitless with a walk in four plate appearances after belting five home runs in the previous two games, on three pitches — a 103-mph sinker, a 104-mph sinker and a 93-mph slider. Chase Utley then flied out on a 2-and-0 pitch before Alex Verdugo, pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, grounded out to leave the Dodgers with nothing from their best scoring opportunity.
The Dodgers’ frustration was evident by the eighth inning, when Manny Machado confronted plate umpire Eric Cooper after a called third strike. Machado’s vexation was cumulative. He was annoyed with the calls he felt the Cardinals were getting and the Dodgers weren’t, including when he struck out on a checked swing in his previous at-bat. So he shared his thoughts with Cooper. Roberts emerged to intervene and protect his player.
Cooler heads prevailed. The Dodgers did not, though they didn’t deem the trip a failure. Ground was gained. They’re in second place again, but 12 games remain. As Sunday showed, things can change in a hurry.
“We have a ways to go,” Roberts said.