On Monday, the Cardinals announced that Adam Wainwright would be out for the season with an achilles injury, which made Lance Lynn the de facto ace of the team. Some people might debate this and say that Michael Wacha headlines the rotation, since he’s been pretty much untouchable throughout his short career. But he’s not proven. Not just yet. Others–crazy people–might elect to call John Lackey the number one starter. While Lackey is perfectly useful, he’s not the pitcher he used to be. He gave up three runs to the Phillies, after all. And then there’s Carlos Martinez, who has electric stuff but is better known for his NSFW twitter fav skills than his pitching. The ace is Lance Lynn, to the extent the Cardinals have an ace. And that’s terrifying to anyone who has watched the team for longer than a year. Lynn put everything together last year, but he’s hardly been a model of consistency. I like Lance. I’ve always liked him. But the frontline starter? Yikes.
All of this coincided with the Cardinals experimenting with some very interesting defensive alignments. For at least a couple days this weekend, Pete Kozma was the backup catcher. He didn’t play there but the possibility still loomed, with ol’ Petey just a single errant foul ball away from donning the tools of ignorance and demonstrating his #framing abilities. Meanwhile, Mark Reynolds headed out to left field for literally his first appearance in LF and his sixth career appearance in the outfield EVER.
I had to do something. I had to try something–combine these two events into something special. So I fired up MLB: The Show 15 and put the new Cardinals ace, Lance Lynn, into the ultimate trial: a complete game, with an entire lineup designed in the spirit of Pete Kozma the Catcher and Mark Reynolds the Outfielder. So it begins.
The rules were simple. The lineup above would backup Lance Lynn, Cardinals ace. No one was at their proper position. Lefthanders were positioned in the infield. Chaos. Absolute chaos. To make matters worse, I set the game in Petco Park, the largest ballpark in baseball, so each out of position player would have to cover the most ground possible. The weather would be rainy, surely a boon to drought-blighted southern California, but yet another obstacle for the Cardinals ace. Obviously, this could go real bad real fast, but Lance Lynn would have no way to escape. He was going to pitch the entire game. I turned off injuries so even a strained oblique couldn’t save him.
This is the passion of Lance Lynn.
The game started off the same way as most games of MLB: The Show, with the Cardinals going down 1-2-3 in the first inning. Playing everyone out of position didn’t affect their hitting abilities, but I was controlling the Cardinals and I always need an inning or so to acclimate to the timing of batting in The Show so Lynn would not begin his tribulations with a lead.
Going in, I knew there was only one way Lynn could succeed on the mound. He had to strike out every hitter or, failing that, induce a lot of pop-ups. Everyone on the field could handle a pop-up out of position. Problems were only going to arise on ground balls or, especially, any time someone had to make a throw. Lynn was going to have to live on the edge of the strike zone, which meant with quick counts in place a lot of walks and a lot of pitches thrown. It’s a good thing injuries were turned off.
The first batter for the Padres was outfielder Wil Myers. Lynn got him to two strikes, then left a curveball in the strike zone where the young righthander could get to it. It was still a good pitch and in any other game a routine groundball to third base would be an ideal outcome. But not in this game, because Jon Jay was playing third base.
A sinking feeling of dread filled Lance Lynn’s heart as he saw the unnatural truth of the defense behind him. Ground balls–the Dave Duncan method–weren’t going to win this game. He needed to rear back and take control. After all, that’s what an ace is supposed to do.
Hope overcame dread in the first and Lynn struck out the next three batters. Matt Kemp almost reached base on his strikeout because Lynn crossed up catcher Matt Carpenter with a changeup in the dirt to get a swinging strike. But Carpenter, a third baseman by trade, managed to make the throw down to first to retire the batter.
Lance Lynn wondered if winning this game was possible after all.
The next inning cultivated the optimism of the Cardinals ace. After his teammates went down in order in the top of the frame, Lynn would retire the first batter on a pop-up that he handled himself. The second hitter would strike out on a high fastball that Matt Carpenter barely corralled into his glove. And the final batter would hit a flyball straight to Yadier Molina in centerfield. The stone-footed catcher barely had to move to make the play.
In the top of the third inning, second baseman Kolten Wong, playing at first base, stepped to the plate and did this:
Just like that, the Cardinals had the lead. Lynn had pitched two innings, mostly keeping the ball out of the hands of his lost fielders, and now a line drive blast put his team on top. He knew the road ahead would be hard but he was an ace. An ace can hold a one run lead.
First, though, Lance Lynn had to bat. Aces don’t have to be able to hit–they give enough value on the mound that even the most atrocious performance at the plate can be forgiven. But a little skill with the stick certainly can’t hurt. Lance Lynn came into this game with a career slash line of .073/.130/.084. Those numbers aren’t too bad if you’re trying to pass a field sobriety test, but they’re downright atrocious for a Major League hitter. Even a pitcher. So when Lynn lined a single into the outfield he could hardly believe it.
Now everything was truly coming up Lance Lynn. Matt Carpenter would strand Lynn on first base with a long fly ball to the cavernous CF at Petco, but even that couldn’t slow down the Cardinals’ ace. Lynn took the mound in the third inning with a spirit renewed. The first batter ground out to third, where Jon Jay fielded the ball cleanly. Lynn felt his entire body clench up when Jay double-clutched the throw, but Kolten Wong pulled it out of the dirt for the first successful infield out of the game. Lynn struck out the next two hitters and took the game to the fourth inning with the lead intact.
The Padres put up another zero on the board, but it didn’t matter to Lynn. He knew he was in control. His curveball was diving all over the place and no one in the San Diego lineup could make solid contact. The fourth inning went easily, except for one strikeout that slipped through the legs of Matt Carpenter and allowed a baserunner. Lynn recovered and retired the side on a flyball to the awkward-but-able Mark Reynolds in left. But these catching woes portended a dark future that Lynn could not yet fully perceive.
Mark Reynolds would follow up on his amaznig routine play and add to the lead with another solo HR in the fifth inning.
Lynn was over halfway through and he could almost see the light at the end of the tunnel. An efficient fifth inning put him at only 70 pitches. Completing the game was going to be tough, but he was on pace to do it before he was completely exhausted. Then the sixth inning happened. After the Cardinals manufactured a run in the top of the inning on a Heyward sac fly, Lynn started the bottom of the frame with a walk to Wil Myers. This wasn’t the first walk of the game–the Cardinals ace had to play on the corners to get the strikeouts he desperately needed–but it was immediately followed by a double, bringing the tying run to the plate with runners on second and third.
If there was ever a time to strike out a batter, it was now. Even a well-fielded flyball in Petco would score the run and likely advance the man on second to third. With an outfield of Matt Adams, Yadier Molina, and Mark Reynolds, the chances the flyball would be well-fielded were next to nil. And a groundball? That would be the worst. The absolute worst.
They say that you could hear the noise from Los Angeles to Tijuana, the loud boom that brought the night sky above San Diego to tremble. It was not a towering home run, but the sound of Lance Lynn’s heart falling from his chest, shattering to pieces as he watched the defense crumble behind him.
Two runs scored, but the Cardinals still had the lead. Lynn just had to finish out the inning. He tried to pick up the pieces of his broken dream but found that they would only be dropped by Matt Holliday, making his first attempt at a diving play at second base.
The Padres tied the game in that inning, but they did not take the lead. Lynn would find the strength to carry on, against all odds. But the seal had been broken. Lynn was approaching 90 pitches and still had at least three innings to play.
The Cardinals roared back in the seventh inning with a towering HR to center field from Mark Reynolds, his second of the game. However, in the bottom of the frame Lynn would begin to feel the effects of fatigue. Hitting 100 pitches cost him velocity and accuracy, and two walks would come around to score without a single error to force them home. The game was tied again, and the Cardinals would be shut down in the top of the eighth inning.
No sane manager would have left Lance Lynn in to face the top of the Padres order in the eighth inning. He was gassed. His spirit was bowed, if not truly broken. But the Cardinals do not have a sane manager.
His fastball diminished and his curveball flattened, Lance Lynn still had one thing going for him: he was the Cardinals’ ace. A number one starter never says no, never gives up, and never stands down. Lynn battled with all his might in the eighth inning. The first batter popped up to short, where Jayson Heyward (who, mercifully, had yet to touch the ball) managed an awkward catch. Lynn walked the next two batters, trying desperately for the strikeout despite his mounting pitch count (over 120 by now). Then he took a deep breath and found the strength he needed for the second out.
With two outs, Lynn carefully pitched around the next hitter and gave up a dying quail single to right field. Mercifully, the runner did not test the arm of Matt Adams and the tie was preserved to the next batter.
Lynn poured in the first two pitches on the corner, setting up the batter for the strikeout that would take the game into the ninth with the score locked at 5-5. All he needed was one more strike. That would do it. He could worry about how he would pitch in the bottom of the ninth later.
Just. One. More. Strike. And that’s what he got. Derek Norris flailed at a change in the dirt that should have ended the inning. There was just one problem: Matt Carpenter was catching.
The dropped third strike and subsequent throwing error didn’t just extend the inning. It allowed the runners from second and third to score and broke the tie.
C.S. Lewis once said that failures are finger posts on the road to achievement. Lance Lynn didn’t know what finger posts were, but he understood failure that day. And he was no longer capable of following down the road to anywhere, let alone achievement. With 135 pitches on his arm, a two run deficit, and an outfield defense that would be rejected as a Keystone Cops adventure for being too unrealistic, there was nothing left to do but let the wheels come off. He would give up three more hits and two more runs before finally retiring the side.
Kolten Wong would hit another home run in the next inning–a blast that would have given the Cardinals the lead if only Matt Carpenter had managed to hold onto that last strike to Derek Norris. But somehow that was not the last bit of salt to be rubbed into the wounds of the embattled Lance Lynn. No, he still had one more indignity yet to face.
With two outs, Lynn was the one who had to step to the plate to represent the last, dying hope of the Cardinals against Joaquin Benoit. They didn’t even bring in Kimbrel to put him down, instead leaving the job to a setup man. Perhaps I should have spared Lynn this final arrow and pinch hit for him. But what if I had staged an improbable comeback? Who would pitch in the ninth inning? I had pledged this whole game to Lynn and I was not ready to go back on my word.
Besides, Lance Lynn was an ace and an ace finds a way to win, despite the odds. He searches himself for every ounce of scrap and grit and heart, willing his team to victory. That .073 career average didn’t matter. Lynn had already defied it with a single in the third inning. This was his game. He had this.
And thus ends the passion of Lance Lynn.