The Cardinals have outfitted several games this summer with themes to entice ticket sales, from Mizzou Night for alumni to Star Wars Night for wannabe Wookiees, and so it was on Superhero Night at Busch Stadium on Tuesday that they had ample power and plenty of heroes.
Yet there was no one to rescue Jaime Garcia.
The lefty was in overt distress in the top of the fifth inning as the visiting Kansas City Royals strafed him for six runs and turned what could have been a soaring revival for the Cardinals into just another confounding caper. Kolten Wong’s first career home run, a grand slam, grabbed a four-run lead for the Cardinals and Peter Bourjos’ solo shot snapped a tie later. But what led to the Royals’ 8-7 victory was what happened in between.
The Cardinals didn’t have a reliever to call on, manager Mike Matheny said, not as Garcia’s outing vanished into the quicksand of the fifth inning.
“We’d like to react very quick, but we don’t have unlimited pitching,” Matheny said. “We still need to get outs. And the guy has been throwing the ball so well. We’ve got to figure out a way for him to get through it, get out of it without too much damage.
“Tough one. Very tough one.”
The Cardinals rallied for two runs to get Garcia off the hook for the loss, but not the team off the hook for how it watched as the Royals blistered the lefty and gave starter James Shields a mulligan. Bourjos’ homer took a 7-6 lead for the Cardinals in the sixth, and KC was able to get the tying run in the eighth and the winning run off closer Trevor Rosenthal (0-3) in the ninth. Omar Infante doubled and then scored on Eric Hosmer’s one-out single for the difference.
The late-inning hiccups proved the difference instead of mere annoyance because of the six runs off Garcia in the upside-down fifth.
“You have a big inning like that, it’s going to hurt you one way or another,” Matheny said. “Big innings are going to run up and bite you. They’re happening real fast to these guys. We’re going to have to find a way to stop them before they get to that point.”
Stopping has become a nightly theme of its own for the Cardinals.
The team saw this past homestand – 19 of 22 scheduled games set for Busch – as a chance to stop the April blahs. They yearned for a stop to their offensive woes, and moving Pat Neshek into a setup role stopped some bullpen turbulence. After being shut out by the Royals on Monday night, the Cardinals spoke about stopping the zeroes. Wong did that with a grand slam in the second inning, their first runs in 21 innings. A curtain call followed.
Although the scoreless streak stopped, so many of the Cardinals’ frustrations keep going. The loss to the Royals, who host the Cardinals tonight on the other side of the state, meant a 2-7 homestand. The Cardinals came into this reassuring stretch of home games, which they described as their slingshot back to form, at 19-19. They leave the stretch with nine wins, nine losses and one rainout at home. They are still the .500 team they insisted they weren’t.
Garcia rejoined the rotation near the beginning of the run of home games, and he had pitched well in three appearances. He was even better early Tuesday. The lefty retired the first eight Royals he faced, and he used a double play to neutralize a threat in the fourth inning. The comfort and control he displayed in the first four innings vaporized in the fifth.
Three consecutive extra-base hits, including a double by Shields, started the uprising. The Cardinals’ bullpen didn’t flinch until Alex Gordon’s three-run homer put KC ahead 6-4. Garcia was clearly agitated on the mound. He would viciously swipe his pitching hand in the dirt between pitches. (“Sweaty hands,” he said.) He picked at his jersey. He shuffled his feet. His fidgeting came in his fourth start back from shoulder surgery and after two years of being physically uncomfortable on the mound because his shoulder ached. The Cardinals had his press on.
The Cardinals said after the game that they saw no signs of injury, and that any apparent discomfort was from the results.
“He should be agitated,” Matheny said. “When you have a four-run lead and you start to see it go away, we want him not happy about that. We need him to get us through it.”
Said pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who visited the mound during the fifth-inning tempest: “I think he tried to get a little dirtier than he needed to be instead of just being Jaime. … Keep your mind in the right spot at all times.”
Garcia needed 49 pitches to own the first four innings.
It took him 38 to survive the fifth.
He hit a batter with his 30th pitch. On the 36th, Gordon homered.
“I just wasn’t able to execute,” Garcia said. “I’ve got to go out and do a better job than that. … I’m on the mound (and) I’m trying to execute pitches until the manager comes to take the ball out of my hand.”
The lead Bourjos’ homer provided disappeared in the eighth when an infield single and a bloop bruised Neshek. The righty had been peerless for a month, going 22 appearances and 20 1/3 innings since allowing a run. Alcides Escobar singled to shallow center to tie the score at 7-7. The Royals’ bullpen carried it to a win. All seven of the Cardinals’ runs came off Shields, and Greg Holland’s perfect ninth closed a flawless series for KC’s relievers. They held the Cardinals to three hits and no runs in 6 2/3 innings.
It was the kind of innings Matheny said he didn’t have. Carlos Martinez’s extended outing Sunday left him unavailable. Jason Motte pitched in back-to-back games. Garcia had to pitch through five to be eligible for a win, but Matheny said he had to press on because of the manpower in the bullpen.
On Superhero Night, he had to save himself.
“It may have looked different if we have a full bullpen, but we didn’t,” Matheny said. “I still don’t know if I do anything. We’ve been killing our guys in our ’pen. We cannot keep firing them out there. Our starters are going to have to go deeper into a game. They know that. Get him through it. That’s just want we do without tearing these guys down.”