PHILADELPHIA • Whatever strides or changes the Cardinals believe they’ve made this month, playing from behind again Thursday vs. amenable Philadelphia affirmed a reality that remains true regardless of their opponent.
The team the Cardinals have been – the team they are – always catches up with them.
With their best pitcher on the mound against the worst team in the league, the Cardinals foiled any chances of a third consecutive late-game revival and a series sweep with three errors. The conflagration of two errors around second base and one out in left field led to three unearned runs in a 5-1 loss to the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. After two days of waiting for the Phillies to make their misstep and then winning in extra innings, the Cardinals never created that chance and instead spoiled Carlos Martinez’s start. The Phillies, steered by righthander Aaron Nola, won for only the second time in 15 games.
This month, the Cardinals had been 5-0 vs. Philadelphia, 3-12 against everyone else, and had, in this series, relied on the Phillies throwing, balking or misplaying the game away.
Evidently, even brotherly love has its limit.
“Outs are crucial,” said rookie second baseman Paul DeJong, who was involved in both errors at the pivot and provided the Cardinals’ lone run. “Wins are tough to come by. So defense definitely plays a big role in winning up here. You have to make plays to get outs. And you’ve got to get outs to win games. You can sense it as you move in the levels. Defense and the little things matter more.”
The Cardinals conclude their six-game, two-city trip with the fitting 3-3 record. They remain a sedan stuck in the mud. They’re trying to get mileage as a contender out of what they have, and every so often they seem to have things revving only to try to upshift and slide right back. The offense stirred on the road trip with 20 home runs, and they had 12 in one series. Yet, they lost that series. The starting bullpen had arguably its best stretch of the season with two crucial long-relief appearances by Tyler Lyons and reassuring outings from Brett Cecil. Yet, the Cardinals had to lean on the bullpen more because the rotation faded.
The defense has shown increments of improvement.
“It happens sometimes,” manager Mike Matheny said, tersely.
Errors behind him complicated a game that had already started to slip from Martinez’s fingertips. The Cardinals’ righthander, who threw his first career shutout 12 days before against the same Phillies, learned quickly that his off-speed pitches would not obey. The second batter of the game, Freddy Galvis, punished a topsy-turvy slider for a solo home run and a 1-0 lead. Martinez (6-6) peeled away from his breaking pitches and went repeatedly to his fastball. Almost two-thirds of the 92 pitches he threw were fastballs, and he did so repeatedly at speeds of 100 mph and 101 mph.
But every fourth pitch or so, he’d turn back to the slider, and once it was turned around at 107-mph for a home run. Two of the three runs the Phillies got against Martinez were on homers, and like Galvis’, Tommy Joseph’s came on a slider. Both were over the middle of the plate. At Citizens Bank Park, that’s how souvenirs are made because of the ballpark’s welcoming dimensions.
“Si, mucho,” Martinez said.
In the fifth inning, Martinez got two strikeouts, one of them called, to find an escape from a mess. He had two runners on base, in part because of errors. A double-play grounder that came back to him wasn’t caught at second by DeJong. That could have brought the pitcher up with no one on. Instead, Martinez had no outs and two on. The second strikeout left him in the same spot – two on – but any grounder got him out of the inning, down 2-0. He got the grounder.
Aledmys Diaz and DeJong didn’t get the out.
Diaz caught the ball behind second base, and in the same movement tried to flip the ball to DeJong at the base. The flip was behind DeJong, who lost control. Diaz got the error.
“Part of the game,” Martinez said. “Mistakes happen. Errors happen. The best thing I can do is stay focused and get another double-play ball.”
Said DeJong: “Plays have got to be made. I’ll be better next time.”
DeJong was the only Cardinal to ding Nola’s afternoon, and that didn’t happen until the eighth inning, as the 26th batter Nola faced. One of the game’s leading curveball-loopers, Nola (4-5) had the Cardinals so oft-kilter they looked lullabied. Nola struck out eight batters, and while he got seven swinging strikes on his curveball, it was what he did with the fastball that kept the Cardinals searching. A fifth of Nola’s 103 pitches were called strikes – on the fastball.
Matt Carpenter and Stephen Piscotty, both of whom struck out twice, had words with home-plate umpire Tripp Gibson III.
“He had really good movement, making it tough on hitters and the umpire,” Piscotty said. “He had all of his pitches working. He just pitched well. He beat us.”
In each of the two previous games at Citizen Bank Park, the Cardinals were able to overcome themselves and their own bad habits to take a tie game into extra innings and then see the Phillies falter. On Tuesday, it was a seven-run 11th. On Wednesday, it was a balk and an error in the 10th. On Thursday, a misplayed fly ball in the eighth by Jose Martinez led to two more unearned runs for the Cardinals. After playing behind all game, that assured they would remain so.
The Cardinals return to Busch to face two division rivals (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) who, like them, tiptoe toward .500 before tripping on their own traits. The front office awaits the clubhouse’s compass pointing in a direction. Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday that the Marlins are close to dealing shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. The glove-first fielder has intrigued the Cardinals before, and could again if defense remains the mandate. But struggles there, spliced with inconsistencies elsewhere, still has the Cardinals playing the season like they did the scoreboard Thursday.
“Always difficult playing from behind. Always tough,” Matheny said. “That’s what makes it so special games like (Wednesday). Those don’t happen to everybody. It takes a lot to make that happen.”
Takes less to make sure it doesn’t.