Once again Friday night the Cardinals received a quality start without a quality outcome.
An upside-down night against the Pittsburgh Pirates left the Cardinals with a 2-1 loss at Busch Stadium, another game deeper in third place, an ejected third-base coach and more questions about a manager's reluctance to inject a key reserve into his team's latest one-run loss.
This one may have left bruises.
A seemingly advantageous pitching matchup instead fell the other way when Pirates starter James McDonald (11-5) exploited a generous strike zone for six shutout innings. The Cardinals’ Jake Westbrook (12-9) lasted longer, allowing only one earned run in 7 2/3 innings, but saw his impressive run of five consecutive wins extinguished on a night when both Pirates runs scored without a ball being put in play.
The outcome again left the Cardinals eight games behind the Cincinnati Reds’ division lead and two games behind the second-place, previously-listing Pirates.
"It wasn’t for us today," said center fielder Jon Jay.
"They swing the bat really, really well," said McDonald. "I got them on maybe a bad day; I don't know."
This is turning into a bad stretch for a team with only 43 games left to make a run for its division. More and more it appears that the Cardinals are playing for a wild-card entry, the same device that started them on their way to last year's World Series title. The Cardinals returned home Sunday following two late-inning losses to the Philadelphia Phillies. They squandered a possible series sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks despite Thursday's 6 2/3 shutout innings from Kyle Lohse before going bat-silent against McDonald.
"I went out there with no thoughts," McDonald said. "Don't try to think, "Gotta do this. Gotta do that.' Don't try to please this person or that person. Just go out and have fun."
Friday’s loss created a quiet, quick-emptying clubhouse reluctant to address its issues with plate umpire Lance Barrett’s strike zone. The Cardinals never got used to high strikes and a plate that seemed especially accommodating to breaking pitches. McDonald appeared to sense the edge quickly and continually started at-bats with his off-speed assortment. Of his seven strikeouts, three were called, two against shortstop Rafael Furcal.
Furcal took three consecutive called strikes on breaking balls to end the fifth inning. With one out in the sixth, third-base coach Jose Oquendo was ejected during a Jay plate appearance for protesting from the coach’s box. He then charged at Barrett but manager Mike Matheny restrained him. After trying to push his way through the manager, Oquendo kicked dirt on the plate before leaving to one of the night’s loudest rounds of applause.
"It was significantly higher from what we’ve had this season – from our angle," Matheny said of the strike zone. "(Barrett) established his zone. It doesn’t mean we have to like it."
As for his hitters adjusting, Matheny said: "I don’t want guys swinging at those pitches. I don’t want them swinging at chest-high curveballs. Nothing’s going to happen except they pop them up anyhow. There’s nothing you can do except fighting them off realizing that’s going to be called a strike. Then you’re making yourself real vulnerable to lower pitches in the zone. But it’s not the whole story."
McDonald (11-5) entered the game trying to hang onto his spot in the Pirates’ rotation. Against the Cardinals he did not look like a pitcher carrying an 8.71 second-half ERA.
Oquendo’s show of frustration offered insight to the Cardinals’ night. They were held to three runs or less for the sixth time in 10 games and managed four hits for the fourth time in nine games. The loss dropped them to 12-21 in one-run games and 17-34 in games decided by two runs or fewer. They are 3-12 in one- and two-run games since the All-Star break.
Despite the night’s offensive struggle, Matheny remained impressed enough by Westbrook that he allowed his pitcher to bat for himself leading off the sixth inning.
"You pitch to the circumstances of the game," Westbrook said. "I felt like I did a decent job of keeping us in and giving us a chance to win. That’s what you do as a starting pitcher."
Westbrook lost to the Pirates for the third time this season and dropped to 1-6 against them in his career. However, the Pirates won without an RBI thanks to scoring on a fourth-inning wild pitch and passed ball. Westbrook has allowed four earned runs in 21 1/3 innings covering his last three starts. Unfortunately for him, the Cardinals have scored two runs in their last 18 innings.
"There's not a team in baseball that wouldn't want him to pitch for them," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who managed the Colorado Rockies when that franchise drafted Westbrook in 1996.
The Pirates entered the series having lost six of eight games while tumbling six games off the Cincinnati Reds’ National League Central lead.
The Cardinals hadn’t seen McDonald in the teams’ first three series this season. They encountered a pitcher who controlled counts with an early curveball and a wide strike zone. McDonald faced the minimum nine hitters through three innings before the Cardinals managed a hit on first baseman Allen Craig’s one-out line-drive double in the fourth inning. The opportunity was short-lived: Craig was thrown out trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt.
Roughed up for 29 baserunners in 15 1/3 innings covering his previous three starts, McDonald never allowed the Cardinals a runner to third base. He walked two but benefited from a first-inning double play and the home team’s frustration with the strike zone.
The Cardinals’ best chance came in the seventh inning after putting the tying run at second base with none out. They generated one run and more discussion about a player's role.
Matheny dismissed the notion of using Skip Schumaker during a pivotal seventh-inning rally after right fielder Carlos Beltran and left fielder Matt Holliday opened with a single and double against reliever Chris Resop.
Second baseman Daniel Descalso took the at-bat in the midst of a 3-for-33 (.111) downturn that brought a foul fly ball to left field. Schumaker is hitting .390 with runners in scoring position this season while Descalso entered the night 6-for-57 (.105) in such situations. Schumaker never appeared, leaving him with six plate appearances and one start in the team’s last nine games.
"We got the guy in there we wanted," Matheny said.
Matheny referred to Descalso as his starting second baseman last weekend in Philadelphia. He cited Descalso’s edge as a defender as central to the decision while allowing that Schumaker could reappear as an offensive spark. The Cardinals enter today in an offensive lull while awaiting catcher Yadier Molina’s return from back soreness.
Though Descalso represents the Cardinals' emergency option as catcher, Matheny said Molina was available if something befell Tony Cruz. The situation again found Descalso in the ninth inning with the tying run on base and Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan in the game. Schumaker is hitting .314 with a team-best .389 on-base percentage but has fallen off the map since taking a pitch to his hand in Philadelphia. Descalso's average fell to .230 Friday. He engaged Hanrahan in an extended at-bat before lining out to center field to end the game.
"We get to a situation where you use Skip or Descalso. Descalso put together a good at-bat," said Matheny, who cited Descalso's career 2-for-6 success against Hanrahan compared to Schumaker's 2-for-11.
"If Dan's ball's is a few feet to either side, we're still playing or better," Craig said.