NEW YORK • It happened suddenly for Cardinals’ wunderkind Michael Wacha. For three innings, the New York Mets had no idea where his next pitch was going. Then, in the fourth, Wacha had no idea where his next pitch was going either. He was off balance, out of synch, unable to execute, and he made the inning increasingly difficult on himself.
In other words, he felt like the Cardinals’ offense has all month.
Wacha struck out a career-high 10 batters but pitched a career-low four innings and still left the Cardinals within striking distance of the Mets on Wednesday. But their offense has become such a labor intensive operation with so many hitters struggling that manager Mike Matheny had to see if maybe technology could produce a run in the ninth. Matheny became the last manager in the majors to use a replay challenge this season. He requested a review on a play at the plate that would have tied the game had the call been overturned.
It wasn’t and the Mets won, 3-2.
Add another zero-for-one to the road trip.
“We’re working hard to get every run,” Matheny said. “This is a team we know is going to hit a lot of doubles. We’re going to hit some out of the park. We haven’t had a lot of that. This is not going to be the style of offense that we are all year long. It just is right now.”
The Cardinals reach the final game of their 11-game trek — the longest road swing of the season — with a 5-5 record and a chance to be far better. Their offense has abandoned them, jetlagged or lost in transit. The Mets started this four-game set as a team that allowed an average of nearly five runs a game and was about to employ its third closer in as many weeks. Veteran Kyle Farnsworth was cut from Mets’ camp during spring only to emerge this week as their current answer for the ninth inning. In three games, the Cardinals have managed four runs against the Mets’ pitching staff. Farnsworth has two saves.
The Cardinals’ threatened to upend his second when Daniel Descalso, fresh off the bench and into a gusting wind at Citi Field, connected for a double to deep left-center field. Singles by Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter had sparked the inning, and Jay scored easily on Descalso’s double. Carpenter wheeled around third as the potential tying run, but shortstop Ruben Tejada delivered a strike to catcher Travis d’Arnaud. As Carpenter slid, d’Arnaud scraped his mitt along the inside of Carpenter’s right armpit. Home plate umpire Marty Foster called Carpenter out.
Matheny didn’t even wait for word from his video room.
He was off to challenge.
The 29 other managers in baseball had already taken advantage of baseball’s expanded replay. Matheny has not had many opportunities, and each time he got word from inside the clubhouse that the call was right. Managers must use their challenges before the umpires take over in the later innings. Matheny went for the replay Hail Mary.
“I didn’t think (blocking the plate) was an issue,” Matheny said. “It was whether he got to the plate before (the tag). The call was right.”
Said Carpenter: “I didn’t feel it, but looking at the replay he got me. Perfect throw, perfect throw. He just threw it in a perfect spot.”
Too much has to go perfect for the Cardinals to score these days.
Carpenter had four hits, but after scoring for a 1-0 lead in the first inning he didn’t see third base until the ninth inning. Yadier Molina had three hits in the game. He drove home Carpenter in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to 14 games, and then stayed put, getting no further than second. Combined, they reached base eight times in the game and scored just once. That has a lot to do with the Cardinals’ lack of situational hitting and lack of thump on this road trip.
The Cardinals have gone 259 at-bats since their last home run. More damning has been their lack of damage with runners in scoring position.
The team that led the National League in runs scored last season and did so with a .330 average with runners in scoring position, continues to hit, but mostly singles. Before Descalso’s double, the Cardinals had gone their previous 80 at-bats with runners in scoring position and produced only two extra-base hits. It sometimes takes three baserunners to produce a single run, and a chain of hits challenges probability when the Cardinals had five position players start Wednesday with averages less than .200. The Cardinals are playing run roulette, not bingo.
The five hitters bracketed around Carpenter — including the bottom four in the order — entered the game 22-for-145 (.151) this season.
Shortstop Jhonny Peralta is in the middle of fog. In the eighth inning, all he had to do was put a ball on the ground to produce a run and shave the Mets’ lead. He popped up to second base and the rally fizzled on his 21st consecutive at-bat without a hit.
“Right now is frustrating for him,” Matheny said, “and it comes at a time when our offense as a whole is really searching for a way to get anything done.”
Wacha (2-2) appeared primed to win with scarce support as he got his first nine outs on nine strikeouts. He got back-to-back strikeouts on curveballs in the third inning, and then finished the inning with a 95-mph fastball past All-Star David Wright. Then things unraveled. A wind gusting at 41-mph blew Wacha’s cap off in the second inning, and it tortured he and Mets lefty Jon Niese (1-2) throughout the game. Wacha started falling out of his delivery and he couldn’t correct it before three walks, including two with the bases loaded.
That’s how the Mets scored their first two runs before Lucas Duda’s solo homer in the sixth.
“You have to be better mentally than what I showed out there,” he said. “You have to shake it off and really go out there and attack hitters and make them put it in play. There’s no excuse for walking in two runs. That’s unacceptable.”
For the Cardinals, right now, that’s also unanswerable.
Even upon further review.
“We will work our way through,” Matheny said. “We’re a working club. That’s what we do. What’s frustrating is we know what kind of potential we have and we’re looking for it.”