ST. LOUIS — Hunter Greene went 48 days between Major League starts due to a stint on the injured list, but if anyone forgot his talent, he gave everyone an encore on Saturday.
Greene showcased record speed with his fastball and dared to strike to try and catch it.
Spoiler alert, it was too hot.
He pitched six scoreless innings before reaching his pitch count, continuing to improve after a shoulder strain. He struck out a career-high 11 batters without walking. His average fastball speed – average – was 101 mph.
“It’s one of the best starts I’ve ever seen,” Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell said after a 1-0 loss in 11 innings. “He just absolutely dominated.”
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Greene’s performance was just one element of a thrilling pitching duel before the Reds lost on a wild fielder’s pick pitching error. St. Louis Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner scored the winning run when Nick Senzel’s pitch to the plate deflected off his left elbow.
Knizner snaked his way along the third base line to the grass and the Reds vehemently argued that he had moved away from the baseline before being hit by the pitch. The Reds were swept away in Saturday’s double game and have lost nine of their last 10 games.
“He established his lane, obviously that was in my way of trying to get him home,” Senzel said. “I tried to give myself some space to throw it. I tried to get a good throw and it just hit him.”
Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said: “It’s a playbook, to be honest with you. Guys talk about it a lot. It’s something we look at. For him to be successful there, that’s the perfect game.”
A sold-out crowd of 48,299, the fourth-largest since Busch Stadium III opened in 2006, came to watch Albert Pujols continue the story, who batted as a batter in the seventh inning, but they were had a brilliant pitching duel as a consolation prize.
Greene had a streak where he struck out five straight, all on fastballs. Brendan Donovan was one of the victims in the third inning when Greene made the first batter look like an idiot. Donovan fouled a 102mph fastball, was fooled by a 92mph slider, then watched a 101mph fastball for the third strike.
“We’re talking about a first-place team with exceptional hitters in the lineup, left and right, it didn’t matter,” Bell said. “He just attacked with a great fastball, great slider. He threw strikes. He had strikeouts. He didn’t walk nobody. It doesn’t get any better than that and it’s in the Hunter’s first start.
“Tonight he was on a small number of short pitches, but on the road there’s a full game written all over it.”
The 23-year-old flamethrower is the Majors’ youngest pitcher and has mastered one of the league’s best offenses. Greene allowed four singles, including a bunt single, and only one runner touched second base while on the mound.
Greene threw 47 fastballs above 100 mph, a record since height tracking data was collected in 2008, and 33 fastballs above 101. He peaked at 102.6 mph, throwing him the fastest of a starting pitcher since at least 2008.
“I know what my bike is, but there’s a lot more to being a pitcher and especially wanting to be one of the best pitchers,” Greene said. “I recognize that. I understand that. For me, it’s being able to put all the tools together and be that complete pitcher and player. I don’t find myself looking up there.”
Speed, as Greene said, is only part of the equation. What made Saturday different was the way he painted elevated fastballs high up in the strike zone. Paul Goldschmidt, the National League’s leading most valuable player contender, was retired in all three at bats against Greene.
The cardinals were almost powerless to stop him. As a team, they have the fifth-fewest strikeouts in the Majors, but they sniffed nearly half of their swings against Greene (19 of 43, 44%). By the end of the third inning, Greene had recorded eight of his nine strikeouts.
“I threw really well in the zone,” said receiver Austin Romine. “Lots of strikeouts up there and it didn’t really look like they had an answer for him.”
Greene hasn’t allowed a run in his last 13 innings including his last starts before his stint on the IL. In his last five starts, he has posted a 2.15 ERA with 40 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 1/3 innings. Match that with Nick Lodolo’s progress, plus Graham Ashcraft set to return next week, and the Reds will hope to have a dominant trio to build their rotation.
“I see Hunter getting stronger,” Bell said. “He had a little setback, but in some ways maybe he turned that into a positive. He definitely came back stronger. There’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.”
José Quintana wasn’t as flashy with his throws as Greene, but he was even more effective. The southpaw shot eight shutout innings, giving up two hits, one hitter and zero walks in an entertaining pitching duel.
After the Reds went hitless in the top of the 10th inning, TJ Friedl extended the game with his defense. The Cardinals charged with one out and Knizner hit a shallow fly ball into left field. Friedl narrowly avoided shortstop Jose Barrero as he ran to the infield to catch, then threw a pitch at home plate that beat third-runner Corey Dickerson by several steps for the end of the inning.
“It’s kind of funny because you’re really not supposed to get out of those situations,” Bell said. “Your back is completely against the wall. I was really impressed with our defenders and our throws. They had fun attacking and being aggressive without losing anything.”
In the bottom of the 11th inning, the Cardinals charged the bases with no outs. A bunt single was the Cardinals’ first hit since the fourth inning. Goldschmidt hit a grounder to Senzel, who was playing third as part of a five-man field lineup, and Senzel’s chance to keep the game alive was deflected.