There would be no October magic this June because of trends that have confounded the Cardinals and their influential hitter since April.
The crowned kings of comebacks when last the Texas Rangers visited Busch Stadium, the Cardinals had their No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday up in the eighth inning Saturday with the tying run on base. He attacked the first pitch from reliever Tanner Scheppers and then sprinted to outrun a habit that has swallowed rallies whole. Holliday grounded into an inning-ending, drama-vaporizing double play. It was his second of the night and his league-leading 20th double play of the season.
The double-play grounder to third base sped the Rangers to a 4-2 victory and left Holliday with a blunt assessment of again turning one hard swing into two outs.
“That’s not good,” Holliday said of grounding into 20 double plays, more than twice as many as any teammate. “That’s just flat-out not good. That’s hitting too many balls on the ground. That’s not acceptable. ... I knew he was coming with 97 mph. My game plan was to hit a line drive up the middle. I opened up a hair early and came over the top of it. That’s a pitch I can handle.”
For the second consecutive night the Cardinals staged an eighth-inning uprising that fell one hit short of upending the Rangers, 2011 World Series-style. Two-run home runs by A. J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz off Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller staked the Rangers to a 4-2 lead by the middle of the third inning. Rangers closer Joe Nathan pitched a scoreless ninth for his 24th save and the Rangers’ fourth consecutive win. The Cardinals lost back-to-back game games for only the second time since April 30.
Texas rookie Martin Perez excelled by exploiting two of the Cardinals’ nagging tendencies. Perez too squelched a threat by getting a double play, and he prolonged the Cardinals’ troubles with lefties. Both losses to the Rangers have been to lefty starters, and the Cardinals are 8-10 in games started by an opposing lefthander. Still one of the top offenses in the majors, the Cardinals go cold against lefties. Perez (1-1) held them to five hits in his seven innings and dropped their average against lefties to .232. Only four teams in the National League have slugged less against lefties than the Cardinals’ .365.
“I imagine those numbers will even out and be closer to normal,” manager Mike Matheny said.
They can start in the middle.
A savage, high-average hitter and past batting champ, Holliday has hit close to .300 against lefties in his career. This season he’s 11-for-54 (.204) against lefthanded pitchers. He and David Freese, two righthanded line-drive hitters, have one home run in 107 combined at-bats. Freese hit it.
“I wish I knew (why),” Holliday said. “I don’t know whether I’m getting turned around on counts because I’m chasing pitches that I shouldn’t be or what. I think it has to do with pitch selection more than anything else.”
It could also be style. The Cardinals’ struggles against lefties have also come from a style of lefty. Perez was able to test the Cardinals’ with a fastball that hummed at 95 mph, and he did so by driving pitches inside on the Cardinals. Evaluators have described how similar the hitters in the Cardinals’ lineup can look when Carlos Beltran moves to the right side of the plate, and how a style of pitcher, some righties and recently lefties, can short-circuit the lineup’s approach.
“It’s hard to get extension when that pitch is up a bit and in on us,” Holliday said. “Now what you have to do is lay off of it. ... You have guys who try to use the middle of the field or go the other way, well those guys can give you trouble. We have to move the ball back over the plate. That’s got to be something we execute better as a team, and me personally.”
Perez, making his second big-league start of the season, and Miller (8-5) entered with similar resumes. Both entered the season as their club’s top pitching prospect, and Perez had a chance to win a job in the rotation this past spring, like Miller did, before a line drive fractured his left arm. Both rookies had never faced a hitter on the other team’s roster. Blank slate. But Miller had a sense of what was coming from the brawny Rangers. They feasted on his fastball.
Ten of Miller’s 17 outs came on fly balls, and the power-hitting Rangers got two home runs, each on first-pitch fastballs.
“He lives up there,” Matheny said. “That’s where his success is. That’s one of those two-edged swords. Most of the guys in the league are going to have a tough time catching up with him. You don’t see many guys that see him for the first time squaring balls up on the first pitch.”
Said Miller: “The first home run I know for a fact (Pierzynski) was sitting dead-red fastball. And when you throw one down the middle it’s easy to hit any kind of fastball.”
Allen Craig’s RBI single in the first inning gave the Cardinals’ a 1-0 lead, and Freese’s leadoff triple set up a rally in the second inning that tied the game, 2-2. Cruz’s home run snapped that tie and Perez did the rest. He retired the final 10 Cardinals he faced, and in the third inning – right after Cruz’s home run – got three outs on five pitches. The last one was to Holliday.
He hit into a double play.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve had some people leaving the field scratching their head with what our offense has done,” Matheny said. “This is a good offensive team. It’s a well-balanced team. We’re right in (these games). Understand that it’s good competition. But we’d rather be on the other side.”