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Cardinals make tradeoff on lineup's Golden rule to fit prospects' production, shifting positions

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St. Louis Cardinals play Milwaukee Brewers Sunday

A  ball hit by Milwaukee's Lorenzo Cain drops between Cardinals second baseman Nolan Gorman, left, and right fielder Brendan Donovan in the sixth inning of a game on Sunday, May 29, 2022, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

A day after adjustments to his swing undammed a torrent of production, Cardinals rookie Nolan Gorman returned to the same field Sunday at Busch Stadium to take more steps toward similar advancement with his glove.

Still relatively new to second base and the position’s increased defensive shifts, Gorman went through a series of drills designed to improve his reaction rushing in from shallow right field and how he fielded grounders to his backhand. The two areas of focus were the two plays he committed errors on Saturday. Though, both were overlooked in the fine print of a box score overflowing with Gorman’s four hits, four RBIs, and a first big-league home run.

It’s a tradeoff that won a game.

It’s a tradeoff, this weekend underscored, the Cardinals are making in their game.

“Any time your offense is struggling, there’s going to be a call to trade off for more offense, to trade the defense to add offense,” manager Oliver Marmol said Sunday after an 8-0 loss to Milwaukee. “And then the same thing is going to happen on the other end, where you’re going to point out some non-plays that you’re used to seeing made.”

The Cardinals committed a season-high three-errors Saturday counterbalanced by four RBIs from Gorman and four from Paul Goldschmidt in a victory. On Sunday, an error did not appear on the scoreboard, but several missed plays happened on the field to skew the loss to the Brewers that split a four-game series. If not for a superb play by Tommy Edman at shortstop, Milwaukee would have had at least another run. The mistakes were too subtle to become errors, but one of the reasons behind them was not.

The lineup lacked its glisten: A team that won a record five Gold Glove Awards last season had only one of the winners playing at the position he won it. For most of Sunday’s game, the Cardinals had only two of eight position players at their most usual positions.

Goldschmidt played first base. Andrew Knizner caught.

Entering the year, the Cardinals built their team around elite defense and believed whatever the season threw at them they could catch it. Offense could ebb and flow in tides, but defense would be their buoy.

Production and injuries have introduced turbulence.

On Sunday, Gold Glove center fielder Harrison Bader came to the ballpark congested and ill and was removed from the planned lineup. Gold Glove left fielder Tyler O’Neill is on the injured list. Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado had a scheduled day off. And Gold Glove second baseman Edman has moved to shortstop since the demotion to Class AAA for Gold Glove finalist Paul DeJong.

At the same time, the performance of rookies such as Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan and the power upside of Gorman has forced finding them positions in the field to keep their bats in the lineup.

In right field Sunday, Donovan, an infielder most of his career, missed two cutoff throws and nearly collided with a teammate while chasing a catchable popup that fell foul. The ninth inning was prolonged by some confusion at second when turning a double play on a shift that put Gorman well away from being part of the play.

Drafted as a third baseman and developed mostly as a third baseman until Arenado arrived in 2021, Gorman has made strides at second.

“He’ll continue to work at it,” Marmol said. “And he’ll get better at it. This kid, he’s got good aptitude. He’ll make adjustments, not only at the plate but defensively. We’ll see him get better in both areas.”

Said Gorman: “Being able to come in when it’s a slow-roller and obviously it helps you to gain more ground out there. The further back you are the more time you’ve got, but also the more (experience) the more comfortable you get.”

The Cardinals expressed hesitance to promote Gorman earlier in the year in part because of how it would reshape their infield defense and relocate Edman to shortstop. A lack of offense made the decision for them. And the defense hasn’t sagged — there.

In April, the Cardinals ranked sixth in the majors with a plus-10 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), per Sports Info Solutions. They dropped to 11th, at plus-13, entering Sunday’s game. Milwaukee led the majors with a plus-26 DRS, and the next-closest NL team is the club that follows the Brewers into Busch Stadium, San Diego, at plus-20.

The dip for the Cardinals has been in the outfield, where injuries to O’Neill (shoulder) and Dylan Carlson (torn hamstring) have opened those spots for infielders such as Yepez and Donovan to play regularly. The outfield was a minus-3 DRS three weeks ago, according to Sports Info Solutions. It started Sunday at minus-10, minus-7 in right.

Since DeJong’s demotion, the Cardinals’ middle infield has remained steady — a plus-12 DRS the day DeJong went to Memphis and a plus-14 on Sunday morning.

Edman has thrived in short stints.

In the fourth inning Sunday, a throw from right field sailed over Gorman and seemed bound to let Milwaukee’s Rowdy Tellez take an extra base and score. Edman snagged the short hop and threw a strike to home that got Tellez by a stride to end the inning instead of allowing another run. Edman turned a potential error into an out.

What was missing Sunday was the hits to hide the misses.

How much offense the Cardinals must get to overcome them is the calculus that comes now with Marmol’s every lineup. Young players improving on defense makes the shift easier.

“We’re going to see games like (that) — and on both sides of it, where we traded off some defense and guys hit,” Marmol said. “It’s going to look that way from time to time, not all the time. It’s the nature of where we are, actually.”

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