ARLINGTON, TEXAS — In the clubhouse hours before it happened, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt leaned forward toward his desk and pointed to the exact spot in the Rangers’ lineup that, if the game went as hoped, Andrew Miller would be waiting to face in the seventh inning.
Decisions made in previous games all weekend had prepped the Cardinals for that preferred possibility, with Miller and Jordan Hicks fresh, available, and set for multiple innings if needed.
Shildt was back in that clubhouse, ejected in the fourth inning, watching as the game and those assignments went exactly as they planned Sunday.
It was the results that went awry.
Hicks, pressed into a third inning of work, allowed two hits and two runs as Texas rallied for a 5-4 victory in the 10th inning at Globe Life Park. Pinch-hitter Willie Calhoun’s RBI single tied the game on Hicks’ 39th and final pitch of his outing. Against Carlos Martinez, Nomar Mazara lined a flyout to center fielder Harrison Bader to score Danny Santana ahead of the throw for the win and the Cardinals’ fifth consecutive series loss.
The run Miller allowed came in his second inning of work, and the runs off Hicks came as he was assigned the 10th after finishing the eighth and speeding through the ninth.
“It didn’t work. That’s probably the question that is arising,” Shildt said. “The reality is it was his turn to pitch. Didn’t want to go Carlos back-to-back unless we had to, and we had to. That was the spot we were in and that started with Game 1 of this series. Guys get called for situations, and it was his situation.”
• BOX SCORE: Rangers 5, Cardinals 4
• STANDINGS: 4th-place Cards 4½ behind Cubs
The loss sent the Cardinals home, after a 2-4 trip, a lot like they left — uncertain.
They’ve lost 13 of their previous 17 games, haven’t won a series since May 1, and must win all nine remaining games in May to avoid a losing month. They're fourth in the National League Central, 4½ games behind the leading Cubs and a game-and-a-half behind the third-place Pirates.
Paul DeJong provided seven RBIs in the interleague series — including two for an early lead Sunday — and the Cardinals got six hits from Bader in Texas.
Yet disjointed play continues to undermine them. If it’s not the offense (two runs in the final two games in Atlanta) or the starter (Miles Mikolas allowed seven runs Friday), it’s the bullpen (fissures Sunday). With all the hype created by a riveting and rollicking April, the Cardinals season has suddenly mirrored HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and become a jumble of decisions that invite questions and plot holes — all of which could end in disappointment. These are self-inflicted spoilers.
“I think it wears on you a little bit but you have to draw from experience,” Miller said. “This is not the stretch we want to be in. We want to be in the stretch where there’s music playing every time we come off the field and we’re winning games and winning series. But right now, it’s one little thing every day it feels like. That doesn’t put a dent in our confidence or change who we think we are. It’s digging a little bit of a hole. It’s a long season. We’ll take our chances.”
Repeatedly throughout Sunday’s seesaw game the Cardinals had chances to seize the series. DeJong cracked a two-run double off Rangers starter Drew Smyly before the lefty got his first out.
But Shin-Soo Choo chopped that in half with a leadoff homer in the first inning of Jack Flaherty's work. With the help of his defense, the Cardinals’ starter found a rhythm to get through six innings with five strikeouts. But a leadoff walk in the fourth eventually led to a run that tied the game 2-2.
Those leadoff walks “seem to haunt us,” Shildt said.
Shildt had been excused from the game in the fourth inning by home-plate umpire Jeremie Rehak after arguing a strike call, or three. Rehak had a favorable opinion of the low and outside pitch that both catchers slurped into the zone with their mitts.
When Jose Martinez struck out on a called strike "my radar goes up a little bit," Shildt said. "I'm going to say something."
He did after Fowler took a similar pitch for a strike. Rehak has three ejections this season, all on a called strike three, and now two involving a Rangers pitcher.
The setup Shildt wanted for Miller in the seventh arrived, and after an infield single he got a double play and a fly ball for the swift inning. To open the eighth, the Rangers pinch-hit for lefthanded hitter Ronald Guzman and still gave the Cardinals a preferred matchup for Miller. Danny Santana, a switch-hitter, was one for 12 with seven strikeouts this season from the right side of the plate, and he’s been a .137 hitter vs. lefties his past 95 at-bats. But Miller misplaced a fastball “right in his swing path” and Santana planted it 411 feet away for a Texas 3-2 lead.
The Cardinals shoved back into the game in the ninth when Fowler fouled off sixth pitches from Rangers reliever Chris Martin before hitting the ninth pitch of the at-bat into right field’s upper deck. Fowler’s game-tying homer forced extra innings, and in the 10th Bader’s leadoff double became DeJong’s sacrifice fly for a 4-3 lead that set up Hicks to win.
But . . .
Hicks (1-2) had thrown a total of four pitches in the previous eight days and this meandering month of May had offered him only three games total. Twice he’s had weeklong breaks between appearances.
Just to get him work, the Cardinals could have wedged him into their win Saturday. Shildt said they opted not to do that so he would be available for an extended outing Sunday — to hold a lead or tie, as they had. The Cardinals’ young closer needed 11 pitches to end the eighth. After Fowler’s homer, Hicks retired the Rangers in order in the ninth on 11 pitches. The Cardinals set a cap at 40 pitches for Hicks.
When Bader outran Choo’s throw home from left field for the 4-3 lead, Hicks still had 18 pitches to give, so he got the 10th. Hicks felt sharp and “loose” he said, and he had a two-inning outing this season in Pittsburgh. He noticed how the Rangers, however, ignored his slider.
“Not even a check swing,” he said.
So he leaned on his fastball. A 102-mph sinker was lashed for a single by Roughned Odor to lead off the 10th. Santana saw seven pitches, all fastballs, for his walk. Hicks’ second slider of the inning came on his 17th pitch of the inning and Calhoun roped it to right to tie the game. Fittingly, the end came on an out because like so many games in this misspent month the Cardinals are a hit here or an out there from being the team they said should be. But, neither happens.
“Guys scratching and clawing didn’t get the reward,” Shildt said. “Ultimately we’ve got to put it together.”