ST. LOUIS — Whatever troubles the Cardinals have had spinning their strong, sturdy starting rotation into consistent winning streaks or even solving their shifting Rubik’s Cube of a bullpen, most of them can be traced back to an issue that has little to do with the pitchers at all.
They’re a rather pedestrian team without more runs.
The San Diego Padres advertised a bullpen game Tuesday, fashioning together a start from the available relievers they had, not one throwing more than three innings. They planned a patchwork. They got perfection. Starter Matt Strahm retired all nine Cardinals he faced. Winner Adam Cimber faced the minimum through his three innings. And by the time the Cardinals got a base hit out of the infield the Padres were on their way to a 4-2 victory at Busch Stadium.
“There is good stuff out there on the mound. I think that’s what we saw,” manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s how they wanted to design it, and it worked.”
Miles Mikolas threw six innings without a lick of support, leaving him vulnerable to two infield hits and three runs that all scored in the same inning. Four of the six hits Mikolas (7-2) allowed came in the same inning. With hints of offense late and visions of earlier walk-off wins still fresh in the air at home, the Cardinals and Matheny went to rookie Jordan Hicks for two innings. He froze the Padres at four runs and the deficit at two, but the Cardinals managed only one hit in the two innings Hicks handled. He provided; the lineup did not.
It’s similar to the push Matheny made this past weekend in Cincinnati and has to make several times this season. It put the bullpen in such a bind this week that three relievers were unavailable Tuesday night.
That invited multiple innings from Hicks.
That puts his availability in question for Wednesday.
A close game may necessitate a gamble.
“We’ve got to chase wins when we can,” Matheny said. “Look at the whole series in Cincinnati and really it’s like we’re barely holding on to one, knowing that we’ve got an offense that’s on the move, close, striking distance. Take what you have when you have it. Make every move that you can. We’ve been using everybody. They’ve been doing a nice job of keeping us where we need to be.”
Several players in the clubhouse admitted at the start of this nine-game stretch that it offered a delicious chance to gobble wins. Sandwiched around a trip to last-place Cincinnati were two home series against two of the worst teams in the National League. The Cardinals had nine consecutive games against fifth-place teams, and as a bonus the Brewers and Cubs were playing against each other this week. One was guaranteed to lose. All the Cardinals had to do to gain ground on a rival was win. That proved tricky. Tuesday’s loss means they’ve split the first eight. They have to win Wednesday to come out of this smorgasbord ahead.
Despite hitting 13 for 59 (.220) with runners in scoring position during the eight-game stretch, the Cardinals averaged 4.25 runs a game. That dips significantly when the Reds are removed — to 3.6. Cincinnati is the caveat to the season, so far.
The Cardinals have slugged .397 overall this season, but .375 against teams not named the Reds. They’ve scored 4.3 runs a game this summer, but only 4.01 against teams not named the Reds. They’re seven games better than .500 this season — one down from their high-water mark — and yet eight games better than .500 against the Reds.
They’re 27-28 against everyone else. Offense is the drag.
“Every offense in the game could take the strain off a pitching staff by going out and scoring double digits every night,” Matheny said. “Been taking better at-bats. Like the way they’re grinding through them. Seeing guys getting locked in. It’s the state of the game right now, too. Batting average is at an all-time low since the 1970s. Strikeout rates at an all-time high. That’s the kind of game we’re in right now. Our team is no different.”
No, but the Cardinals do lag behind even the lagging behind this season — and that’s further aggravated by the new and contrasting looks they got from the Padres’ bullpen parade Tuesday. No Cardinals player had two plate appearances against the same Padres pitcher. Only Matt Carpenter had consecutive at-bats against righthanders with similar release points. The Padres started a lefty, followed with an extreme-submarine righthander, and then went to two classic righthanded relievers before closing where they began, with a lefty.
In order the Cardinals saw a guy who throws mostly fastballs to a submariner who throws mostly sinkers – but sometimes high the zone. Matheny called Cimber “unique.” A classic fastball-slider reliever followed, and then Kirby Yates’ split-finger fastball. An appealing target in the coming weeks for a trade, closer Brad Hand is throwing sliders more than half of the time for the first time in his career.
“Always a fresh look,” outfielder Harrison Bader said.
Strahm and submariner Cimber (3-2) carried a perfect game through the fifth inning before Bader’s infield single snapped it. The Cardinals didn’t score until the seventh against Craig Stammen. The Padres had a 4-0 lead by then, three of which came off Mikolas in the fourth. Eric Hosmer jumped the first pitch of the inning for a home run, but the inning turned when Corey Spangenberger clipped an infield single off Mikolas’ hand. The next three batters also singled, and A.J. Ellis capped the inning with a two-run flip to right field.
Mikolas insisted the hit off his hand didn’t change the inning.
“No bruises. Nothing,” he said. “Iron fists.”
The Cardinals didn’t get that fortunate until Bader nudged a ball into the dead zone between the pitcher and third baseman. That rally fizzled with a double play. Carpenter and Tommy Pham opened the seventh with singles. Marcell Ozuna followed with an RBI single, and Yadier Molina had an RBI groundout for the final run. The Cardinals did not have an extra-base hit. They also did not walk. Defined by what they don’t have, day in and day out, that’s where the search for offense begins for the Cardinals.
It’s what they’re missing.
“That’s kind of how baseball goes sometimes, especially for our lineup,” Bader said. “I thought our offense did a good job of getting somethings rolling toward the end of the game. The reason we have these walk-off wins that we have this season is the offense is there, it’s always been there, and it’s going to show up at some point.”