CINCINNATI -- The Cardinals beat the Reds here Wednesday night. They beat them, 5-4, in 16 hard-fought innings between two teams in the thick of the National League Central race. They beat them on a night when the Pirates lost in Milwaukee, and so each late inning -- and there were plenty of them -- took on added gravitas.
Let's say, for starters, that neither club could feel particularly perky by the final out. The Cards might have pulled within a game of the Buccos, but their enthusiasm was understandably tempered by the loss of cleanup hitter Allen Craig to an ankle injury in the fourth. X-rays here were inconclusive, so Craig will head back to St. Louis for an MRI exam. And no matter how long he is out, that is a huge hit in the middle of a lineup already struggling to generate runs in recent days.
"Any time you're sending Allen Craig away," manager Mike Matheny said, "is not good news."
They replaced Craig with Matt Adams, who went deep in the 14th and again in the 16th, a demonstration of the depth that makes the Cardinals one of the most envied and respected organizations in the sport. The Cards' calm in these conditions suits them well in this Central race, even as the threat of injury and rotation instability threatens them.
So certainly, all credit where it is due to the Cardinals for toughing it out on a tough night.
But now that that is all out of the way, let's add this: The Reds lost this game. Lost it in ways that cannot be condoned.
It is bad enough that the Reds' Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters -- Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Chris Heisey -- went a combined 0-for-19. It is bad enough that Cincinnati stranded the loaded bases in the first and another two in both the fourth and the sixth, essentially wasting a solid start from Bronson Arroyo against a St. Louis club that demands perfection from a finesse pitcher such as he.
No, what made this loss more vexing was Buntapalooza, a squaring-up spree that sprouted up in extras and absolutely killed the Reds' would-be rallies.
There are good bunts and bad bunts in baseball. Arroyo bunting in the second, fourth and sixth to advance runners to second and third? Good bunts. The latter two, executed with one out, did not result in any runs, but the strategy was sound.
Bunting -- or, at least, attempting to bunt -- with Blazin' Billy Hamilton at first base with no outs in the 14th? Well, let's be kind and call it strange.
Bunting with the winning run at first and no outs and Brandon Phillips, who reached 100 RBIs earlier in the evening, at the plate in the 15th? Let's be kind and call it… interesting.
Bunting -- or, at least, attempting to bunt -- later that inning with two outs and the winning run at third? Let's be kind and… ah, forget it, I can't say anything kind about that.
This was a remarkably strange sequence for a team in a pennant push, a team that can ill-afford to be giving up precious outs. Maybe time will prove this was not a game Cincinnati had to win, but we are not blessed with the ability to know that right now. All we know is that it sure felt like a game the Reds, still 3 1/2 back of the Pirates and now 2 1/2 back of the Cards, could not afford to give away.
"You can't look back," manager Dusty Baker said afterward. "You've got to look forward."
Sure. But let's look back for just a second, OK?
In the 14th, with the Reds trailing by a run after Adams' first blast, Hamilton pinch-ran for Ryan Ludwick, who led off with a single off Cardinals closer Edward Mujica. It is no secret that this is the precise reason Hamilton is on Cincinnati's roster: to pinch-run and to steal bases.
And yet, there was Zack Cozart, squaring up to try to bunt Hamilton over. Mercifully, the bunt attempt went foul, because that would have been an affront to whatever deity blessed Blazin' Billy with his speed. And then, after Hamilton swiped second for the second time in as many nights, Cozart came through with a single up the middle, allowing Hamilton to score easily.
Despite research that you are more likely to score a run with a runner at first and no outs than a runner at second and one out, Devin Mesoraco then tried to bunt Cozart over, and suffice to say that did not go well. He bunted into a forceout. And then Jack Hannahan grounded into a double play to end the inning.
So we went to the 15th, where Buntapalooza really hit its puzzling peak.
This time, Shin-Soo Choo led off with a single off Carlos Martinez, representing the winning run at first. Now it was Phillips -- remember, the guy so many Cincinnatians consider the team MVP because of his Category 1 Clutchness this season -- who was instructed by Baker to put down a bunt, giving up an out to get Choo to second.
"I just did what I was told," Phillips said. "It's a team game; that's what it's all about. You want to move the guy over in that situation. I just tried to go over there and do my job. Whatever the team needs me to do, that's what I do."
So now the Reds had the winning run at second with one out and Votto at the plate. That did not end well, either. Votto, who has been routinely knocked and mocked for his pedestrian RBI output from the three-hole, ended a miserable plate performance by grounding out to second. And maybe, on most nights, that would be the focus here. It was certainly interesting that the Cards opted to pitch to Votto and then intentionally walk Bruce, but that is another discussion for another day.
My focus is what happened next. With runners at the corners and two outs, Heisey squared up. He squared up against a guy who throws 99 mph. With two outs. Heisey's absolute best (and only) hope in that situation was to leg out a bunt single. Instead, he missed the bunt completely, and Choo was caught in the middle of the basepath and left for dead. He was tagged out to end the 15th, and Adams' second shot in the 16th put this one to bed.
Heisey, Baker made it clear, was acting on his own.
"You're not going to try and squeeze bunt with two outs," Baker said. "He thought that the third baseman was back."
It was not a smart play, and it was one of several not-so-smart plays that came back to bite the Reds, much like the double-steal attempt Baker tried to pull with Bruce and Scott Rolen when Cincinnati had a rally going against Matt Cain in Game 5 of last year's Division Series.
Again, maybe this loss does not loom as large as it felt in the aftermath. But that is not for us to know right now. All we know is that on a night when the Cardinals lost their cleanup man, the Reds gave away a ballgame, and both losses stung. Unlike the Craig injury, though, Buntapalooza could have been avoided.