Pinch-hit homers are really quite rare. Last season, only 101 were hit across 2,430 regular season games, which is less than one every 20 contests. So, of course, the Cardinals hit three of them in tonight's game against the Braves as part of an unanswered seven-run onslaught to drop the Braves to 0-3. (The Cardinals, meanwhile, improved to 1-3 after being swept by the Pirates to start their 2016 campaign.)
The game was an uneven mix of frustration and fun for the Braves. After Matt Wisler had some minor adventures in the top of the first (a double by Matt Holliday, hitting Matt Adams with a pitch, and finally striking out Randal Grichuk on a slider in the dirt to end the frame), the frustration came out in full force in the bottom of the inning. Ender Inciarte led off the Atlanta attack with a routine roller to short, where Cardinals Jedd Gyorko made a poor throw that Adams could not handle. However, Inciarte strained his hamstring running down the line and is day-to-day; he was replaced by Drew Stubbs for the remainder of the game. The next hitter, Erick Aybar, also hit a ball to Gyorko, and Gyorko muffed fielding that one as well, putting runners on first and second with none out without the benefit of a hit. Unfortunately, Freddie Freeman flew out on the first pitch he saw from Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia, and Adonis Garcia hit into a routine double play on the very next pitch, ending the threat.
The game was quiet until the bottom of the third, with Matt Wisler cruising through the Cardinals' lineup in what was a pretty welcome development. In his first plate appearance of 2016, Wisler hit an opposite field liner that dropped in front of Stephen Piscotty (Piscotty had to make a nice stab at the ball to keep it from getting by him). Stubbs then singled and Wisler hustled over to third on the hit, and after Stubbs stole second, Aybar worked a full count before skying a ball deep enough to right field to score Wisler (who didn't slide on what ended up being a somewhat close play at the plate).
Freeman would follow the first plated run of the game by striking out, but after the Cardinals intentionally walked Adonis Garcia with two out, Nick Markakis made them pay by lining a single up the middle, scoring Stubbs, despite not having the platoon advantage. Hector Olivera then popped a fly into center field, right where Randal Grichuk barely missed making a catch on it, scoring Garcia. Tyler Flowers would cap the scoring in the frame by hitting a hard liner into left field, and Gordon Beckham would end the frame with an equally hard groundout to shortstop. The Braves had a comfortable 4-0 lead. What could go wrong?
A lot, apparently. Wisler, whether because the Cardinals had gotten some looks at his stuff, or because he was tired from running the bases earlier in the frame, was less effective in the fourth than in his first three innings of work. (I also apparently jinxed him in the game thread by saying I felt sorry for the Cardinals. I apologize to everyone.) Matt Holliday doubled for the second consecutive plate appearance, followed by a pop-up to left field by Matt Adams that Hector Olivera was unable to catch. After a check-swing tapper from Grichuk, Yadier Molina hit into an RBI groundout, and Wisler bounced a pitch in front of Flowers that skittered away and allowed Adams to score.
Wisler did not stop the bleeding there, following all that with a four-pitch walk to Kolten Wong, allowing a dinked single by Gyorko on a two-strike pitch that was basically in the left-handed batter's box, and then getting victimized by an up-the-middle grounder by Jaime Garcia that Beckham was able to corral but not record an out on. Mercifully, Drew Stubbs flew out to end the frame, with the Braves still holding the slimmest of leads.
Having scored their four runs, the Atlanta offense went right to sleep. though the same was also true of the St. Louis attack. This status quo held until the top of the seventh, when with one out, pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker replaced Jaime Garcia and promptly thwacked a 1-0 offering from Wisler into right-center field to tie the game with a single swing. Wisler allowed a single to the next hitter, Matt Carpenter, but Carpenter was retired by the potentially-resurgent (or at least not as dreadful) arm of Nick Markakis, who gunned him down at second as Carpenter tried to stretch it into extra bases. Fredi Gonzalez then made the trip out to the mound to replace Wisler with Dan Winkler, who then ruined all my hopes and dreams by walking Stephen Piscotty, preventing his K/BB ratio from tearing a rift in the universe. Winkler then got Holliday on a groundout to keep the game tied.
The bottom of the inning presented a great chance to score for the Braves which they ultimately fouled up. Facing Cardinals reliever Seung Hwan "Final Boss" Oh, Drew Stubbs worked a leadoff walk, was bunted (whyyyyyyy) over to second by Erick Aybar, and advanced to third on a wild pitch. The wild pitch made the Cardinals less reticent about walking Freddie Freeman intentionally, but Oh got Adonis Garcia to retire himself on some breaking balls in the dirt and lefty reliever Kevin Siegrist made short work of Nick Markakis with a groundout to keep the game tied.
With Matt Adams due up, Fredi Gonzalez opted to use his lone lefty in the bullpen, Eric O'Flaherty, to start the eighth inning. Of course, Mike Matheny saw right through this "cunning plan" and countered with right-handed hitter Aledmys Diaz, who took the second pitch he saw from O'Flaherty and deposited it deep into the left-field night to untie the game. It was the first career homer for Diaz, and the second pinch-hit longball for the Cardinals. Jim Johnson was then called on to relieve O'Flaherty, who threw just those two pitches (and received the loss for the game), and picked off Kolten Wong after a single in a minor stroke of fortune.
The Cardinals were almost, but not quite, done victimizing the Braves: in the ninth, John Gant had a very two-true-outcomes outing. Gant struck out Gyorko, but then gave up the third of the pinch-hit homers, this time to Greg Garcia. He then struck out Carpenter looking, and then gave up another homer, this time of the "hey guys, I was in the lineup all along" variety to Stephen Piscotty. Gant then rebounded by striking out Holliday. Still, all the damage was done at this point, and Trevor Rosenthal had a laughably easy time shutting down the Braves in the bottom of the inning for his first save of 2016, with strikeouts of Kelly Johnson and Drew Stubbs thrown in for good measure.
Overall, Wisler pitched okay and possibly deserved better given his six strikeouts to one walk, though the homer and wild pitch he allowed definitely stung. On the offensive side, the Braves managed five hits and five walks, two of the latter by Adonis Garcia (who had just five walks in 198 PAs last season!)
The Braves will attempt to finally grab a win tomorrow night, as Carlos Martinez faces off against Julio Teheran. But hey, at least we didn't lose on a missed catch at the plate for a third consecutive game, right?