Pitching with Cuba on his mind, Cardinals rookie right-hander Johan Oviedo did what he could, and it should have been enough for his first major league victory in 17 career starts.
Incredibly, it wasn't.
Thanks to an unlikely ninth-inning comeback by the Cubs that put six runs on the scoreboard, the Cardinals fell 7-6 at Busch Stadium on Tuesday night, denying Oviedo a deserved moment in the winner's circle.
Oviedo allowed a run, three hits, a walk and two hit batters to go with five strikeouts over five innings. He left with a three-run lead after throwing 74 pitches to 21 batters, both of which are near his averages in 13 starts this season — although he has gone longer.
The Cards' lead grew to 6-1 by the time the Cubs batted in the top of the ninth, but relievers Luis Garcia and Alex Reyes couldn't hold it as Oviedo watched from the dugout.
"I still have a lot more games to pitch, with a lot more chances," said Oviedo, who turned 23 in March. "And if I give my team a chance to win, that's what really matters."
Not insignificantly, Oviedo pitched with messages of solidarity inscribed on his red Cardinals cap: "S.O.S Cuba" and "Patria y Vida" — the latter translating to "Homeland and Life." They are words of support for anti-government protests happening in Oviedo's birth country of Cuba, where his family still lives. Other major leaguers from Cuba and of Cuban heritage — including Cardinals slugger Nolan Arenado, whose dad is from Cuba — wrote the words on their hats in recent days to show support.
As Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote: "the protests decry the country’s lack of food, supplies, medicine and other conditions caused by government actions."
The situation for many Cubans has grown dire because of the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also a factor, as always, Cuba has been the target of trade sanctions by the U.S. since its communist government came to power under Fidel Castro in 1959.
With those heavy real-life considerations running through his mind, Oviedo put together one of his better performances. At other times, he's struggled to get the ball over the plate; overall, he has walked 31 in 58, giving him a BB% in the 18th percentile in the league. Against the Cubs, 50 of his 74 pitches went for strikes. He also struck out at least five, and lasted at least five innings, for the fourth time this season.
Cards manager Mike Shildt expressed his sympathies.
"He was dominant," Shildt said. “It’s a real gosh-darn shame this guy doesn’t get his first major-league win. He earned it in every facet. He gave us five strong innings, left with the lead, and can’t ask for much more than that.”
Everything seemed set up for a celebration until the final inning. Adding to the improbability of the Cubs comeback, Garcia struck out the leadoff batter but, ominously, Patrick Wisdom reached first base because of a wild pitch.
Two batters later, Reyes, who came in with a spotless 24-of-24 history in save opportunities, entered with a five run-lead. By the time Shildt pulled him, Reyes had gotten just one out and the Cardinals had fallen behind. It was the most disastrous ninth inning for a Cardinals bullpen in 11 seasons. That it happened against the Cubs, the Cards’ top rival, undoubtedly didn’t help the sick feeling in town.
St. Louis’ offense went 1-2-3 in the ninth, dropping the Cardinals back below .500 overall and leaving Oviedo waiting at least one more turn before getting his first individual victory. Only five pitchers in MLB history, not counting the current 56-game streak of Rays opener Ryne Stanek, have made more career starts at the beginning of their careers without being credited with a victory as a starter. Stanek purposely has never pitched more than two innings in any outing, no matter his effectiveness.
One of the unlucky pitchers is actually a teammate, Daniel Ponce de Leon, who reached 19 starts before getting a victory in 2020. Patrick Sandoval of the Angels and Bill Caudill of the Cubs, in the late ‘70s, also went with a victory for 19 straight starts. Ignoring Stanek, the record is 20, shared by Mike Mohler of the Athletics in the 1990s and Rube Schauer of the Giants and Athletics more than 100 years ago, when they played on the East Coast.
One detail that sets Oviedo apart: All of the relevant pitchers named above, except for him, picked up at least one victory in relief during their droughts as starters. Excepting Stanek again, Oviedo and former Twins pitcher Liam Hendriks, now a closer with the White Sox, are the only pitchers ever to go at least 17 starts at the beginning of their career without picking up a victory of any kind in that span.
Much less emphasis is placed on individual victories for pitchers these days. Most pitchers, most of the time, don’t go deep enough into games to accumulate as many victories as in times past. Also: Players, teams, fans and media are savvy enough to discount the importance of giving one individual, even a pitcher, too much credit for a stat that belongs in a team category.
Regardless, Oviedo can take actual solace in realizing the Cardinals already have won three games that he started this season. Oviedo might not have gotten the win, but the team did. And he has pitched well enough for the Cards to win perhaps seven times since 2020 started. It’s not a great record, but it’s no 0-fer.