MILWAUKEE — While there was plenty of consternation after $44 million free-agent-signee Steven Matz struggled in his first start as a Cardinal, catcher Andrew Knizner said he knew going into Saturday that the left-hander was headed for a dominant performance, following an outstanding bullpen session a couple of days earlier.
When Knizner witnessed Matz perfectly spotting his fastball, curveball and changeup in that bullpen session and the blister issue that bothered him in his debut was no longer a factor, he felt confident that Matz would thrive. Then, Matz went out and backed up Knizner’s prediction by striking out six over 5 2/3 scoreless innings of three-hit ball as the Cardinals beat the Brewers 2-1 at American Family Field.
“When you have three plus pitches and you’re spotting them like Matz did, it’s going to be hard to hit,” said Knizner, who started in place of a banged-up Yadier Molina. “He was lights out, absolutely dominant and kept them off balance. I think it’s a product of the bullpen he threw a couple of days ago. His preparation and mindset were there, he took it into the game, executed and went through their lineup.”
For Matz, his performance was a bit of a redemption from his debut, when he allowed seven runs on nine hits in just three innings of work against the Pirates. This time around, Matz only allowed two Brewers to reach second base and retired 11 in a row at one point.
“When you come into a new organization, you want to contribute right away and it was frustrating after that outing,” Matz said. “But I’m just glad I could contribute to us getting the win.”
Matz’s strong start was upheld by some stellar relief work from Ryan Helsley, Génesis Cabrera and Giovanny Gallegos, who limited the Brewers to just one run and two hits over the game’s final 3 1/3 innings. Helsley struck out Hunter Renfroe with a 3-1 slider and a 101 mph fastball to end a threat in the sixth.
Meanwhile, Cabrera pitched 1 2/3 innings and kept power hitters Christian Yelich and Rowdy Tellez out of the game until the ninth. And in the final inning, Gallegos got Tellez to ground into a game-ending double play that featured three Gold Glovers — Tommy Edman, Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt — working together while in a defensive shift. Arenado’s flat-footed throw with a runner barreling down was measured at 80.4 mph.
“It was awesome, and our guys actually practice that in the shift,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “To see it come into play, that was a good way to end the game.”
Marmol was equally as complimentary of St. Louis’ bullpen for ensuring that Paul DeJong and Corey Dickerson’s RBI singles and Matz’s performance stood up, adding that the versatility displayed gives the Cardinals arguably the best bullpen in the NL Central. That’s an honor that has undoubtedly belonged to the Brewers in recent years, but the Cardinals are now in position to challenge that, Marmol said.
“Having the ability to trust any of those guys in any situation is a nice thing to have,” Marmol said. “I think we have the best bullpen.”
The Cardinals might have the best starting staff in the NL Central, too, if Matz can consistently pitch like he did on Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 201-pounder tied for the most wins by a left-hander in the AL (14) last season with the Blue Jays and established himself early with four April wins. That success caught the eye of a Cardinals squad that badly needed a southpaw to balance the righty trio of Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson.
On Saturday, Matz worked with Knizner to formulate a game plan where he would attack inside with his fastball and then come back with changeups that tailed down and away from right-handed batters. That plan, combined with Matz’s ability to hit his spots, allowed him to retire 11 straight batters between Kolten Wong’s single in the second and Andrew McCutchen’s single in the sixth. Even after allowing a third hit, Matz recovered and struck out Willy Adames before turning the game over to the bullpen.
Knizner said he knew the strong, bounce-back outing was coming because of Matz’s high character and the intensive work he put into his bullpen session a couple of days earlier.
“I remember Matz told me after his first outing, ‘Man, I felt so good, and had a great first couple of innings,’” Knizner recalled. “He comes out today feeling good again and he absolutely dominates. It’s the big leagues and it’s a tough game. Even when you are feeling good, you might not have good results. But [tonight] he was lights out.”