ST. LOUIS — It’s pretty obvious why the Brewers have been able to seize a firm grip on the NL Central lead most of this season. Few teams can match the quality of their pitching, and perhaps none can match their depth.
But Woodruff said he is hopeful his right ankle, which began to cause him discomfort in the fourth inning and took him out of the game in the fifth, will recover sufficiently for him to make his next scheduled start. He said he left the game for largely precautionary reasons after his first two warmup pitches of the inning were wildly errant, prompting worries the injury would affect his command.
“I can’t really give you an answer until I really come in tomorrow and see how it feels,” Woodruff said. “Honestly, I think I’ll be fine.”
Friday’s injury came at a frustrating time for Woodruff, who felt that his stuff was as explosive as it has been at any point this season.
The Brewers have been waiting for Woodruff to return to his dominant 2021 form and, with an offense that runs hot and cold, they need all the high-powered pitching they can get to continue holding off the Cardinals atop the division.
“I felt like I found my slider there in the fourth inning and was able to kind of move forward with that, and that’s why I was looking forward to getting back out there, because I had finally found that pitch,” Woodford said. “I think once I can get that one going to the righties, it helps me be able to do a lot of different things. Just felt better delivery-wise, felt like I got in a good spot to where I was last year when I was able to be real consistent.”
The Brewers, like many of the teams in the NL Central, rarely know what they’ll get from their offense. They had eight hits to the Cardinals’ five in the game but spent a frustrating early part of the evening trying to break through against sinkerball pitcher Dakota Hudson. He gave them copious opportunities but got the key ground balls to escape trouble. Andrew McCutchen hit into a double play to end the third inning and chopped an inning-ending grounder to Nolan Arenado to leave the bases loaded in the fifth.
The Brewers couldn’t score until the ninth inning, when Keston Hiura connected for a two-run home run off reliever Kodi Whitley.
The Cardinals’ hitters managed far less traffic against Woodruff than the Brewers did off Hudson, but they capitalized when Kolten Wong couldn’t make a play up the middle on a Harrison Bader ground ball in the third inning. The timing was inopportune since the next batter, Paul Goldschmidt, has reached base safely in 32 straight games and is batting .400 this month. Goldschmidt lifted Woodruff’s 96.8 mph fastball into the left-field bleachers to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.
Woodruff got out of that inning, but trainers and manager Craig Counsell went out to meet with him after he threw two warmup pitches to start the fourth. After a conversation, Woodruff came out of the game due to what the team later described as discomfort in his right ankle.
If Woodruff misses his next start, the Brewers might need to reach into their Minor Leagues to replace him. They have a doubleheader Monday at Wrigley Field and have already promoted Aaron Ashby to their rotation to start one of those games.
Woodruff hasn’t been as dominant this season as he was in 2021, when he struck out 211 batters in fewer than 180 innings, but two of his best starts had been his past two, and the Brewers have leaned hard on their excellent pitching this year given an offense that ranks smack dab in the middle of MLB with a 102 wRC+.
St. Louis added two runs off reliever Brent Suter in the seventh, with Edmundo Sosa’s triple being the key blow. Sosa later slid under Omar Narváez’s tag when Rowdy Tellez threw to home on Lars Nootbaar’s fielder’s-choice grounder.
The Cardinals and Brewers have been atop the NL Central standings throughout the early season, with Milwaukee having held the top spot since late April. They have played six games head to head, splitting them, but the Cardinals hold one key advantage. They’ve played a more challenging schedule so far.
Coming into this series, the Brewers had played the three sub-.500 teams at the bottom of the NL Central 18 times, while the Cardinals had only played them nine while having to tangle with the contending Mets and Giants seven times each.