CINCINNATI — Steven Matz has been around long enough to know that the difference between winning and losing as a starting pitcher is making your best pitches at the most critical time. And it doesn’t hurt having some great defense behind you when you need it the most.
That was certainly the case Friday night at Great American Ball Park in the bottom of the fifth inning as reliever Nick Wittgren was warming in the Cards’ bullpen.
Matz, taking a four-run lead into the frame, walked Reds catcher Aramis Garcia on six tough pitches. Colin Moran followed with a clean single to center. With first and second and no outs and 70 pitches in, the 30-year-old lefty was not long for this game. And having yet to record an out in the inning, he was still three outs from being eligible for his second win in as many starts.
“It always comes down to execution of pitches,” Matz said. “That’s really my main focus, is to try and block out everything else and make my pitch.”
But for Matz (2-1), Friday night was not about the previous 70 pitches but two he would execute to help him escape with minimal damage and a victory in the Cards’ 4-2 triumph.
After falling behind Kyle Farmer with ball one, Matz followed with another changeup and produced a routine grounder to Nolan Arenado, starting a 5-4-3 double play. After giving up a clean RBI single to left off the bat of Brandon Drury, Matz needed to execute one more key pitch.
With the count 0-2 on the right-handed, power-hitting Tommy Pham, Matz crafted a perfect 77 mph curve that Pham swung right over for strike three, and the threat was contained to just one run.
“Very key to that, and that’s where I think we’re seeing a more confident version of Matz, when he’s pounding that ball in there and feeling good about it. It’s a good day,” Cards skipper Oliver Marmol said.
“He’s established the inside part of the plate. He’s commanded it well there, and it’s allowed all his other stuff to play a little better. That changeup underneath the zone is good for him. The curveball today was a really good pitch for him. He stole some strikes early on [Joey] Votto, threw some underneath the zone that were strikes early. He did the same thing to Farmer, but the curveball was a big player for him.”
That’s what veterans like Matz do on teams like the Cardinals that have perennial championship expectations.
Matz certainly got his fair share of help behind him on this night as well. Arenado’s start of the fifth-inning double play was routine. His pick of a third-inning grounder hit by Drury was anything but ordinary. Arenado picked it up and, as he was crossing the third-base bag, threw a strike to Paul Goldschmidt at first for the second out.
“That play that Nolan made for him, that guy is a joke,” raved Marmol. “I don’t know how to even rate them anymore. I know I can’t make them. That’s being the best third baseman in the league. He practices it. He hits ‘Gold’ in the chest. The way he makes that backhand play, it’s pretty special.”
“I think we prepared for [Greene’s high velocity],” Marmol said, “and then it’s always easier to adjust down than up, right? So we were prepared for the velocity and his mix of that with the slider, but early on, you could tell the velo was a tick down, and guys made an adjustment.”
Matz reached 95 mph several times but was able to rely on his changeup and curveball in key moments.
The Cardinals did what their manager hoped for against one of the hardest-throwing hurlers in the game, while the Reds could never find the knockout blow against Matz.
“That’s what you’re going to have to beat if you’re going to win a World Series,” Marmol said prior to Friday’s game. “It really is. You can feast on those other guys, but at the end of the day, these are the guys you have to be able to game plan and be able to execute that game plan against. I think our guys are well prepared for it.”
Matz again allowed the leadoff man to reach in the sixth, when Votto singled sharply up the middle. But the pressure seemed off this time as he knew his work was done. Marmol came quickly up the steps with Wittgren already warm from the previous inning.
Marmol took the ball from Matz, and both watched as Wittgren walked TJ Friedl with one out, then got the next two outs to escape without damage.
Thanks in large part to Arenado’s glove work, Matz dodged trouble through 80 pitches and five-plus innings. He walked two while striking out six, scattering seven hits.
“It really is amazing,” Matz said of his third baseman. “I’ve never played with somebody that good in the field. He just makes it look easy. Crazy plays down the line. It’s just routine for him. It’s really fun to watch. It’s really fun to be a part of.”