Cardinals’ frustrating stretch continues as they search for answers


ST. LOUIS — In a scene that has become quite familiar over the better part of the past two decades at Busch Stadium, Adam Wainwright walked off the mound Friday night to a standing ovation from the home crowd. He was coming off nine two-run innings against the Phillies and was on his way to his 28th career complete game, the most among active pitchers.

The only problem? The Phillies – buoyed by Zack Wheeler’s brilliant seven innings – had held the Cardinals scoreless for eight frames. St. Louis also didn’t score in the bottom of the ninth. Instead, Wainwright’s reward for nine stellar innings on 103 pitches suffered the loss of bad luck as the Cardinals lost 2-0 to the Phillies in Game 1 of a four-game series.

Wainwright’s outing is reminiscent of his full game last April against Wheeler and the Phillies, who beat the Cardinals 2-1 that April night. That night, Wainwright gave up two solo homers to Rhys Hoskins, and the offense couldn’t find a way to string together a few hits. On Friday, Wainwright allowed two solo homers to Alec Bohm, and the offense couldn’t find a way to score at all.

It was a fitting night for the Cardinals, who lost seven of their last nine and fell just four games above .500 in what became their worst slip of the season. St. Louis has scored seven runs in its last five games, and two of those runs were assisted by an auto-runner on second base in extra innings. Over the past week, the Cardinals’ starting pitch faltered early, allowing several runs in the first innings that ultimately proved insurmountable. In games like Friday’s, when their pitcher was out, the offense was ineffective.

For a team so consistent through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Cardinals’ recent tussle raises a question: what’s wrong?

“I wouldn’t say anything is wrong,” manager Oli Marmol said after the game. “You tell me who is underperforming. The guys did their best, play to their abilities, and if you look at this stretch, we’re playing some really good teams. A lot of (the games) were close. … It didn’t go our way.

It is undeniable that the cardinals are tired. They are playing 17 straight games heading into the All-Star break, and their first-half schedule was one of the toughest in the league. They are without two starting outfielders, Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill, the latter of whom was due to be activated from the 10-day injured list before Friday’s game but suffered a bruise in his right wrist after being hit by a throw during his rehabilitation. mission and will need at least three days to be evaluated. They had to juggle rookies such as Brendan Donovan and Juan Yepez around the diamond in an effort to present their most competitive club. Donovan hasn’t had a day off that wasn’t a team-scheduled day off since May 21. Tommy Edman hasn’t had one since June 14 and Yepez’s last was June 18.

“Fatigue is a big part of that,” Marmol said of recent struggles. “You want to take your best shot every night, which means you put on your regulars every night to make up for having guys out of the lineup. Over time, it takes its toll. You start to wear you out a bit, the pace of the hunt, everything starts to increase I think it’s taking its toll for sure.

Yet for a team that has always declared its aspirations to be a legitimate playoff contender, you can also argue that even though the Cardinals “play some damn good teams,” they should have a better record. St. Louis lost two of three to Philadelphia last weekend before losing three of four to Atlanta. After this current set with the Phillies, the Cardinals will face the Dodgers for three games. They clearly have their work cut out for them. Being shut out in three of their last six games won’t be enough.

The Cardinals’ offense this year has been much more reliable and productive than in previous years, which perhaps makes the inefficiencies even more frustrating. But from the perspective of Paul Goldschmidt — who was named to the National League All-Star Team as the starting first baseman ahead of Friday’s game — that’s not the approach that needs fixing. , like the past seasons. The Cardinals haven’t been able to take the big hits lately. It’s not necessarily about relying on home runs, but driving the ball is what made the offense so successful.

“I wouldn’t say approach,” Goldschmidt said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that we didn’t really drive the ball last week. Every time we don’t score, we don’t get extra hits. I’m not saying we have to swing for the fences, and I’m not even saying we have to make an adjustment, but the facts are, especially when you’re up against really good pitchers, it’s going to be tough stringing shots together. We’ve had people on the base, but it’s tough if you’re only relying on a two-out hit.

“We also saw that last year. When we’re good, we get extra hits and drive the ball. There will always be strikeouts, there will be all this other stuff. But a two-out double or a solo homer, some of those little things, for me, over the last week, that’s what we’ve been missing. I think it’s more a question of results. I don’t think we need to change. I don’t think at-bats are bad, but obviously we haven’t really driven the ball consistently, and when we do, we’ll start scoring.

Perhaps the key injuries combined with slow play and the importance of the upcoming trade deadline made this period so frustrating. For most of the first half of the season, St. Louis was a top 10 team. When healthy, Cardinals always are. It’s fair to say that their recent slide is simply a tough time with many key players missing and many more yearning for a day off that isn’t available.

“Every team goes through the hot days, where you just can’t find a way to win a game,” Wainwright said. “And that’s where we are right now. …Right now, our team is hitting when we’re not throwing, and throwing when we’re not hitting. We’ll be lining these things up soon and winning a bunch of games in a row, and everyone will forget this time, but those are the times that make you tougher as a team and figure out how to get through it.

But it’s also reasonable to review the roster and identify areas in need of improvement, which the front office will be looking to do before the August 2 trade deadline if they want to turn the Cardinals from a good team into a good one. a damn good team. It will also help if things beyond their control start to unfold.

The Cardinals need a healthy outfield and for O’Neill to restore his power. They need to shore up the starting pitch, although the team thinks Steven Matz will be back before the All-Star break, which should help. The Cardinals have corrected their bullpen shortages, but an effective bullpen only works if it’s preceded by an effective rotation. They would benefit from the return of Yadier Molina, who remains in Puerto Rico in right knee rehab.

Many of these caveats will resolve over time. Maybe that’s what makes this time of the season so frustrating. Marmol is right – no one on the current roster is really underperforming. But a better collective performance will have to come soon, and it may not be a feasible concept at the moment.

(Photo of Adam Wainwright reacting after Alec Bohm’s home run in the eighth inning: Jeff Curry/USA Today)


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