Whatever direction the rotation heads without Adam Wainwright atop it, the Cardinals’ appetite for contention will remain nourished by starts like the one John Lackey had Monday.
It’s the offense that has left them hungry.
The Cardinals squandered the best opportunity Philadelphia lefthander Cole Hamels allowed them, and the Phillies didn’t do the same in a 4-1 victory Monday at Busch Stadium. A game featuring two of the lowest-scoring offenses in National League, naturally, turned around two bunts by the starting pitchers — one made, and one missed — and a double that dropped just inside the left-field line before scurrying into the seats. Lackey gave the Cardinals seven innings and didn’t allow a run until the seventh inning, but his only support was a two-out run in the third from a meandering lineup.
The Cardinals have overcome the absence of an ace like Wainwright in seasons past. An absence of offense is, as a season progresses, harder to outlast.
“Those usually come back and get you when you don’t do the little things right like getting the bunts down,” manager Mike Matheny said. “In a close game it makes a big difference. They got the big hit when they needed it, and we didn’t.”
The Cardinals returned to Busch after a 4-2 road trip to start an 11-game homestand – the longest of the season – and were greeted with a swirl of injury news that ranged from reassuring to season-challenging. Yadier Molina returned to the lineup from a bruised knee, and Jason Heyward cleared all tests after a hamstring scare and did pinch hit late in the game. The team also announced that Wainwright would miss the remainder of the season after surgery Thursday to repair his torn Achilles tendon. The weight of Wainwright’s workload shifts to the other members of the rotation, and the committee of pitchers likely to be used in his spot. But the burden of replacing his influence on the team is shared. The offense is not absolved.
Some of their road scoring trends followed them home.
In the final three games against Milwaukee, the Cardinals went three for 27 (.111) with runners in scoring position, and they left 28 runners on base. The Cardinals had the third-highest total in the NL with 131 left on base before Monday’s six, and the Phillies were right behind with 130 left on base. Both teams get ’em on. They struggle to get ’em in. And Monday’s game favored the team that got ’em over.
In the seventh inning, the Phillies tested Lackey (1-1) with consecutive singles to open. A slick play by Matt Carpenter at third base helped catch the lead runner between home and third and offered Lackey an escape hatch. With runners at first and second and one out, Hamels (1-2) came to hit. Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said getting Hamels his first win of the season was one reason he let the lefty stay in the game. That, and he can bunt.
“Once it was first and second, I had him bunt,” Sandberg said. The purpose was to stay out of a double play “and just to get a hitter up there.”
Hamels executed the bunt, and Lackey welcomed it.
Statistically it put him in a better spot to avoid any more trouble with runners on second and third and two outs than with runners at first and second with only one out.
“It’s a lot better than being in the American League and facing somebody who is going to take a whack at you,” Lackey said. “I’ll take the free out. If I get the next guy out, who cares?”
The next guy, leadoff hitter Ben Revere, flipped a fly ball down the left-field line that tucked in fair territory before skipping into the third-base box seats for a ground-rule double. Hamels’ bunt had put two runners in scoring position, and the Phillies took a 2-1 lead. Odubel Herrera’s third hit of the game brought home Revere to extend the lead and came on Lackey’s final pitch. All seven of Lackey’s starts at Busch since joining the Cardinals this past July have been quality starts, and he lowered his home ERA as a Cardinal to 2.25. Yet he has as many no decisions (three) as wins (three) there.
What the Phillies did do in the seventh, the Cardinals failed to do in the third.
A leadoff walk to Jon Jay brought Lackey to the plate. A career American Leaguer until the trade to the Cardinals, Lackey failed to execute a bunt. Hamels teased him with three consecutive offspeed pitches before Lackey struck out trying to bunt a changeup. The Cardinals’ leading hitter, Carpenter, had two hits in the game, and with him at the plate the Cardinals tried a hit-and-run. The pitch was too inside for Carpenter to make an attempt, and Jay was caught easily as he slid into second base. Instead of having a runner at second with one out and Carpenter up, the Cardinals had two outs and no runners. A two-out RBI single by Matt Holliday salvaged the inning, but revived Hamels.
The Phillies’ lefty, who is one of the premium pitchers expected to be traded this summer, sped toward seven innings from there and struck out nine.
“No question we had him on the ropes,” Matheny said. “Pitch count was up. He was working hard. We were probably one hit away from getting some serious action going in the ’pen. And they get to make a decision what they’re going to do. He beared down and got the outs when he needed them.”
Four of Hamels’ strikeouts came from the fourth and fifth spot in the Cardinals’ order, and cleanup hitter Matt Adams struck out three times, including once with two runners on.
Without Heyward in the lineup, Matheny moved Jhonny Peralta up to No. 2 and kept Adams in the cleanup spot despite lefty Hamels being on the mound. Adams slipped to zero for eight against lefthanded pitchers this season with five strikeouts.
“Giving Matt a chance to keep working and find some positives to come from some lefthanded at-bats there, but right now that’s hard to come by,” Matheny said. “He’s seen some tough (lefties). Right now, Matt is in a tougher spot. He’s going to have to keep working and figure out how to get it done.”
Same can be said for the lineup.
The Cardinals’ rotation and a pitching staff with the lowest ERA in the majors has fueled a 12-6 start to the season. Last year’s team spent a summer parched for the power that gives the lineup a shortcut to runs. This year’s team has been slaked by timely hits more than thunderous ones, and a few times it has left itself exposed to be undone by a bunt.