Cardinals' young pitchers survive a gut-check game at Coors Field

DENVER -- Things can get a little wonky in October. Stuff happens in playoff baseball games, where it's loud and everybody's staring at the players.

So, Monday night in Denver was a nice little preparatory examination for the St. Louis Cardinals' emerging young ace, Carlos Martinez, who undoubtedly will be called upon in the Cardinals' most crucial postseason games, presuming there are any and presuming the team can decide which one(s) he pitches.

Monday was like a minefield of potential distractions for Martinez. He could barely breathe at times. There were relievers up throughout his outing largely because he labored through the first inning in 35 pitches. He had to run the bases hard and then suck on oxygen in the dugout afterward. At one point, manager Mike Matheny brought a trainer and a cup of water out to the mound because he thought Martinez looked green.

The Rockies pitcher, Tyler Anderson, hit him in the calf with a pitch that had questionable motives. Whether Colorado hit him on purpose or not, Martinez probably isn't on that team's holiday card list and he knows it.

Even Martinez admitted that he might not have been able to buck up under all that last year and get through his five innings, as he did Monday in earning his career-high 15th win. There was nothing artful about those innings. He gave up a couple of runs and struck out six and needed 102 pitches to do it. By Coors Field standards, it's probably the equivalent of a quality start, but nothing special. But it did set the Cardinals up for a 5-3 win in a game that appreciably improved their odds of reaching the playoffs.

"People change. They mature," Martinez said through an interpreter. "I feel like last year I was just starting out and there were a lot of eyes on me, a lot of pressure. Now, I've been around and my experience is starting to show."

The Cardinals' win and losses by the Mets and Giants made the National League wild-card race a crazy jumble with less than two weeks left. The Cardinals now trail the Mets by a game and are tied with the rapidly sinking Giants for the second wild-card spot. The Cardinals have 12 games left.

This series had the potential for being a trap, as it is sandwiched around a crucial series in San Francisco and a marquee series in Chicago against the rival Cubs. The Cardinals, of course, can't afford any shift in their focus or their season will be effectively over.

It certainly could have been a trap for Martinez, who had all sorts of drama with the Rockies last season.

Baseball players often have long memories when it comes to grudges. The Rockies didn't face Martinez when they were in St. Louis in May. In July of 2015, Martinez hit DJ LeMahieu in the left hip. LeMahieu got mad and had to be held back by Yadier Molina and, later, Colorado first-base coach Eric Young. Later, he told Colorado reporters he thought Martinez's pitch was on purpose. Kolten Wong later took a fastball in the upper back from Christian Friedrich, but perhaps that didn't settle it in the Rockies' minds.

"It wasn't an accident," LeMahieu said in 2015. "I hit the ball back at him in the at-bat before, and I guess he thought I tried to hit it back at him or something. I'm not sure, but he was staring me all the way down, so I don't know."

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny didn't answer directly when he was asked whether he thought the Rockies hit Martinez on purpose Monday, saying only, "Just playing the game." Martinez addressed it.

"I don't think it was retaliation. That was last year, in the past, it's a new year," Martinez said. "I wouldn't like to think that it was. I think it just got away."

Martinez also hit a little, lining a two-run double into the left-field corner off Anderson in the fourth inning. That was a far better form of retribution than throwing at a batter and, perhaps, getting ejected and suspended for a start. The Cardinals can't afford any of that nonsense at this juncture.

The Cardinals' offense, usually reliant on the long ball, was mostly inert in the cavernous, cool atmosphere in San Francisco, but it could roam wild at Coors Field. Cardinal hitters looked baffled at first by Anderson's odd, two-kick delivery until Jedd Gyorko and Randal Grichuk got aggressive in the third inning. Gyorko doubled and Grichuk jumped on the first pitch he ever saw from Anderson, yanking it into the left-field stands for his 23rd home run, his 11th in the 35 games since he returned from Triple-A Memphis.

Cardinal relief pitching has been good. On a night Seung Hwan Oh was unavailable after pitching three innings in the previous two games, it was a collective effort to thwart the Coors Field effect. Dean Kiekhefer even impacted the pennant race in a positive way by getting two outs in the eighth inning. The ninth inning was dicey for Kevin Siegrist, but he got his third save. Ryan Raburn hit a high fly ball that carried all the way to the right-field stands and Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez both got on base before Nolan Arenado lined out hard to left field to end the game.

Practically nobody likes pitching in Coors Field.

"For me, I've just got to battle to make the pitches I can make," Siegrist said. "You have to have conviction with everything, just trust it. For me, it's more how I feel than the actual pitches. I just don't feel as good body-wise and arm-wise."

Matt Bowman had never pitched here before. While he was warming up, he noticed his changeup was floating and his sinker wasn't doing what he wants it to do. He got two crucial outs, though he walked the pitcher, Anderson, and gave up a Gerardo Parra double.

Monday was a learning experience for a few of the young Cardinals and the more of those they get under their belt at this time of year, the better.