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Superb starter or subpar at-bats? Cardinals zero-in on reasons for shutouts slump

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The Cardinals open a series with the Padres on Tuesday night at Petco Park.

SAN DIEGO – With a chance to change the game, change the week and help haul his teammates out of the quicksand he’s encountered before, Paul DeJong – not a pinch-hitter for Paul DeJong – came to the plate in the seventh inning Wednesday.

Albert Pujols snapped Blake Snell’s no-hit bid with a two-out single in the seventh. Rookie Juan Yepez followed with a single to get Pujols where so few Cardinals have been – into scoring position. The inning, the game, the moment found DeJong with a chance to deliver the Cardinals’ first RBI in nearly 45 innings, their first run of their visit to Petco Park.

He chased the first pitch, a 97.7-mph fastball up and out of the zone.

“Big situation in the game, just tried to do some damage, and got out of my zone,” said DeJong, one of the last Cardinals to leave the clubhouse Wednesday night. “I was maybe a little too aggressive. First pitch. Chased the high fastball. I was just trying to time up the heater. He beat me a few times. I expanded the zone a couple of times.

“A little too aggressive in that situation.”

The Cardinals’ only at-bat with a runner in scoring position ended with DeJong swinging at two more 97-mph fastballs from a pitcher at his best for a strikeout to end the inning. Let the questioning resume.

Dominated by Snell for seven innings, the Cardinals withered in pitchers’ duel, 1-0, to San Diego and were shut out for the third consecutive game and NL-worst 16th time this season.

It’s the first time since the end of the 2015 season that the Cardinals have been shut out in three consecutive games. The Cardinals have not scored a run in the first nine innings of the past four games, and they’ve now gone 43 innings without an RBI or an earned run. Snell struck out a season-high 13 batters, but that underplays how overpowering the San Diego lefty was. Of the 117 pitches he threw, the Cardinals swung at 59 of them. They missed 29 times – nearly half.

Snell (8-9) had 10 strikeouts by the end of the fifth inning. He had struck out every Cardinal at least once except Yepez by the middle of the fourth. Three of those 13 strikeouts were DeJong.

He finds himself camped in the gully the Cardinals tumbled into this week – trying to parse the difference between a poor game against a superb starter and trends that cut deeper, spread wider, and suggest a bigger hole to escape. How many of these games in this stretch of struggles for the Cardinals are due to the excellence of the pitcher like Snell or Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene? And how many have been wasted by cast-aside at-bats or sideways situational hitting? For DeJong, the trouble with Snell was a continuation that stretches back before this season. For the Cardinals, it was a game they hope doesn’t suggest where their season is heading.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman shares his thoughts on frightful Cardinals offense. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Vince Coleman! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

DeJong has gone a month without an RBI.

The Cardinals have gone 157 plate appearances without one.

In the past 28 games, DeJong has four hits in 58 at-bats, and he’s struck out 25 times. He’s hit .069 with a .194 on-base percentage, a .121 slugging percentage and a .315 OPS. The Cardinals have a .333 OPS in their past four games, batting .116 and slugging right there with DeJong, at .123.

At what point does a trend become too hard to dismiss as temporary?

“Here’s the deal,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “I have more confidence in this group than I did when we were killing the league on offense and nobody was talking about the fact that we weren’t scoring runs. I have more confidence in what we were able to do as a club today than I did a month ago. You can tell about people when you go through what we’re going through right now – (how) they respond to it. That tells you a lot about who they are, their character, their ability to fight through it. I have a ton of confidence in them.

“I know I’m repeating this: I am concerned zero.”

Still, zero is the concern.

Specifically, the zeroes stacking up.

The Cardinals have not scored in 27 consecutive innings, 18 of them against a playoff-caliber team in San Diego. Miles Mikolas countered Snell’s gem with six solid innings and six strikeouts. He had two each against the thump of the Padres’ order – Juan Soto, Manny Machado, and cleanup hitter Jake Cronenworth. Mikolas pitched well enough that the only run in the game was an unearned run scored after a fielding error. The run scored on a two-out single by the Padres’ catcher Austin Nola, who has hit .184 over the past three weeks.

“Two teams headed for the playoffs here and there’s a reason – good pitching,” Mikolas said. “Good pitching beats good offense just about any day, and that’s what happened today.”

Mikolas (12-12) had zero interest in being back in the lineup, NL-style, vs. Snell.

“Not against a guy like him,” Mikolas said. “I would just be up there (and) he’d have another two strikeouts. He would have had 15. In a one-run game, if I’m hitting up there, I’m just hoping to get one. I’m taking three swings, trying to put one into the Gaslamp district and probably not being successful.”

The matchup figured to favor the Cardinals, or at least give them a foothold from slipping further into the muck. The Cardinals boast two of the best hitters against lefties in the majors, from Paul Goldschmidt’s .846 slugging percentage (tops) to Pujols’ .760 (second). As a team, the Cardinals have a .818 OPS against lefties. That leads the majors. As does the Cardinals .471 slugging percentage. The one left-handed batter the Cardinals had in their lineup on Wednesday, Corey Dickerson, had two homers in five at-bats vs. Snell.

This was not that Snell.

The lefty announced his hold on the game early. He struck out five consecutive batters at one point, whiffed seven of the first 11 batters he faced. All 13 of his strikeouts were swinging. In the second inning, Pujols got ahead in the count before Snell wrenched it back full, 3-2. The lefty tested Pujols with a 99-mph fastball. It was the hardest pitch Snell threw this season. Pujols struck out. Snell averaged 97 mph on his fastball Wednesday, up from his season average of 95.7 mph.

“There are certain nights you tip your cap. Tonight is one,” Marmol said. “But you still have to beat him to get to where you want to get to – or guys like him. … You’ve got to beat them. We’re just not producing. I would be the first to describe the why. There is no why. We’re just not producing.”

In the lineup for his steady play shortstop and the potential of his right-handed bat against a lefty starter, DeJong was the last out of the second inning and the first of Snell’s five consecutive strikeouts. DeJong saw six fastballs in his first at-bat, got the count full, and then struck out on a 98.3 mph four-seamer. In the fifth, DeJong saw another six pitches, worked the count full, and then swung over a 89.7-mph slider. He faced four breaking pitches in that at-bat.

When the game bent around to find him again in the seventh, Marmol had the option of going to left-handed batter Brendan Donovan for a pinch hit.

Donovan has hit .135 (five-for-37) in his past 11 games and told Marmol that he’s reaching a bit for his swing. Had Donovan been in a better spot, he would have started Wednesday’s game, even as a left-handed hitter. That he didn’t start played into Marmol’s decision not to suddenly thrust him into a pivotal spot of the game. The manager saw how Snell worked left handed-hitting Dickerson for two strikeouts and sided with DeJong taking his at-bat. The Padres had a reliever ready if Marmol went to a pinch-hitter.

San Diego stuck with Snell.

He challenged DeJong with four fastballs.

DeJong swung and missed on three.

A superb starter exploited a struggling hitter.

A superb start prolonged a team’s struggles.

The chance that could cause them to linger?

Well, it’s not zero.

“Every opportunity is a new one for me,” DeJong said when asked his way out of the .154 average and ongoing search for past success. “It’s not about me chasing anything. It’s more about trying to find a way to help any way I can – for us to finish strong, get some momentum going into the playoffs.”

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon attempt to diagnose a Cardinals lineup that has shriveled. Albert Pujols can't do it all alone.

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