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Empty nest: Blah at-bats, baserunning blunder cost Cardinals as Orioles soar to series win, 3-2

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Cardinals rally fails, drop game 3-2 to Orioles

Baltimore Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini (16) makes the catch to get St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman (19) out during the sixth inning of a MLB game against the Baltimore Orioles at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Thursday, May 12, 2022. The Orioles took the series with the 3-2 win over the Cardinals. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

Little missteps like the baserunning blunder for the final out of the game or the missed pickoff on what became the game’s winning run wouldn’t have loomed so daggum large if not for the biggest thing of all missing for the Cardinals.

Runs provide excellent cover, even on the hottest days.

The Cardinals lack shade.

For the second time in three days against the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles, the Cardinals struggled to muster offense, stringing zeroes like digital garland on the scoreboard above a baking Busch Stadium. Even the sharpest of fundamental teams cannot always overcome a dull offense. An overthrown curveball and overaggressive baserunning were examples of Cardinals overdoing and still losing, 3-2, to the Orioles.

The final out of the game was a double play when Tyler O’Neill got caught retracing his steps back to first base after a flyout. The winning run was an Oriole the Cardinals had picked off cold, but the throw to second was late and the Oriole safe.

“We’re usually on the other side of that — where the small details are going our way,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “We’re running the bases in a way that helps us win close ballgames, and we’re usually on the other side of good defense that helps us win close ballgames. That wasn’t the case. More often than not we’re talking about it the other way around.

“When you don’t score, those little details are magnified,” Marmol said. “The pickoff is magnified. A baserunning mistake is magnified.”

Finding himself in the glare of that magnifying glass was O’Neill.

The Cardinals’ left fielder saw his batting average sag beneath .200 when he made the final out of Tuesday’s loss. He has been replaced in the lineup at times due to a sluggish start. And Wednesday he lost an arbitration decision to the Cardinals, though this year’s numbers were not considered. On Thursday, the Cardinals’ earliest, best chance to muscle control of the game against Baltimore’s parade of relievers included two, two-out walks by Juan Yepez and Albert Pujols to load the bases — for O’Neill. He struck out on three pitches.

In the ninth, O’Neill flared a single down the right-field line to put the tying run on base with one out. The next batter, Dylan Carlson, popped a ball up to shallow center. Baltimore’s outfielders did not have a play on the ball. Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo did. O’Neill paused as he approached second as if to measure the chances of a catch. When the catch was made, he was past second base — no chance to retreat.

All in his attempt to push for third.

“We made an aggressive move,” Marmol said.

“I was overaggressive,” O’Neill said. “It’s not an excusable baserunning mistake. … It’s a Bermuda Triangle ball. It ended up being caught. No excuse.”

O’Neill finished last season and started this season in the middle of the Cardinals’ lineup, and now is in the middle of the lineup’s search. He finished Thursday right at .200 with two of the Cardinals’ nine strikeouts. After a furious start to the year with a homer and five RBIs on opening day, O’Neill is hitting .160 at home.

He welcomed the single in the ninth, but also called it “soft contact.”

“It’s going to take a couple of hits, a couple of barrels to get going, that’s for sure,” O’Neill said. “I’m getting there. I’m getting there. Had a long week. I’m increasingly getting past all the negotiation stuff (on a contract). I feel like I’m coming into myself and hopefully it’s relatively soon.”

In the two losses to the Orioles during their first visit to St. Louis since 2003, the Cardinals scored five runs and struck out 21 times in 60 at-bats.

While offense is sinking around the leagues, the Cardinals’ hole is deeper and not new. A subpar offense in the first half of last season and near the bottom in production during 2020, the Cardinals have scored three or fewer runs in 15 of their 31 games. Including Thursday’s loss, they are 4-11 in those games. They’ve lost 10 of their past 12.

“Moving forward, we’ve got to be able to drive some runs in,” Marmol said.

A blast of offense during Thursday’s 90-degree temps would have highlighted Steven Matz’s bounce-back start after a dud in San Francisco. Instead, the meandering offense obscured it, even complicated it, and definitely wasted it.

A start after allowing three home runs and a career-high eight runs before getting a fifth out, Matz pitched into the seventh inning. He spent most of his 6 2/3 innings holding tight to a one-run deficit after allowing a solo homer to Mateo with two outs in the second inning. Sporting a plunging changeup and experimenting with a veering cutter, Matz found quick sync with catcher Andrew Knizner and that created a swift tempo.

He did not walk a batter and struck out seven.

In the seventh, he had two outs and two strikes on Baltimore’s backup catcher, Anthony Bemboom. Matz (3-3) then did something his teammates can relate. He overdid something.

“Just overthrew the curveball,” Matz said of the pitch that flattened out over the plate before Bemboom put it over the wall for his first homer of the season. “That two-strike, two-out pitch kind of overshadows the whole outing for me. One-run game. Two outs. Two strikes. Just execute a pitch and guys come out and score a couple of runs.”

Chris Owings struck Matz’s 101st and final pitch for a single that brought lefty Genesis Cabrera in from the bullpen. Cabrera had Owings leaning from first and caught, easy, for the final out of the inning. Albert Pujols’ throw to second was late. Owings got a steal.

He scored a few pitches later on a single.

When Carlson homered in the seventh and Nolan Arenado scored Tommy Edman on a sacrifice fly in the eighth, Owings’ run — so often turned into an out on the bases — was the winner.

The Cardinals did not have the offense to outrun it.

“There are guys taking good at-bats and there are guys who aren’t,” Marmol said. “Right now, in order for this to click and go in the direction we need it to go, more guys have to contribute. That’s just the bottom line.”

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