OAKLAND, Calif. — Regardless of what team appears on their schedule for tomorrow or who the box score shows they faced yesterday, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt repeatedly has said this season that his team’s opponent, day in and day out, does not change.
They play against themselves, he stresses.
They beat themselves this weekend.
Adam Wainwright hit two batters Sunday and both scored, and three of Oakland’s runs in a 4-2 victory were directly caused by mistakes made by the Cardinals. Ushered to 15 base on balls during the Cards’ visit to Oakland Coliseum, the A’s completed a two-game interleague sweep, finished the season 4-0 against the Cardinals, and jettisoned them from first place in the National League Central. When the A’s didn’t do so, the Cardinals walked all over themselves.
“Put guys on base, you put yourself in harm’s way, and eventually you’re going to get harmed,” Shildt said. “They were completely self-inflicted. That’s why you say you beat yourself.”
A concern coming out of last season and a focus throughout this spring training was the Cardinals’ ability to lapse into walks. Shildt referred to it Sunday as a “bugaboo” that the team cannot shake. The starting rotation has walked 219 batters this season, the third-most in the majors and the most of any team with a winning record. The Cardinals used eight pitchers in the two games against the A’s, and seven of them walked at least one batter. Oakland peppered the Cardinals with 18 hits, but the Cardinals charitably matched them, baserunner for baserunner, with 18 freebies, including three hit batsmen.
Of the 12 runs Oakland scored this weekend, seven came from runners who reached by walk or bruise. The A’s were one-for-11 with runners in scoring position on Sunday and got away with it because that one was a two-run double. A wild pitch from John Gant allowed the fourth run to score. Sandwiched in between was Jurickson Profar’s solo homer on Wainwright’s 99th and final pitch — the run that proved to be the winner. The Cardinals’ starters, Wainwright (7-8) and rookie Dakota Hudson, walked eight batters in nine innings combined. As a result their pitch counts mushroomed, their appearances shortened, their ERAs rose, and their team foundered.
“Look at the numbers,” Shildt said. “And this goes back. This isn’t any kind of sabermetrics brainstorm that is taking place here. The analytics movement didn’t come in and say, ‘Hey, it’s important to get ahead in the count.' We’ve known that since I think Doubleday started the game. Felt like that was a big bugaboo for us at the end of last year. It’s been a clarity to what it looks like when guys have been able to control counts. Everybody is better when it happens.”
In the inning that tilted Sunday’s game, Wainwright had control of both counts that flipped on him. He was ahead 0-2 on center fielder Mark Canha before clipping with a cutter that was so close to the strike zone that catcher Andrew Knizner still caught the ball after it had hit Canha. In his two looks at former teammate Stephen Piscotty, Wainwright wanted to go high and above the zone on the A’s right fielder. He got ahead 0-2 again on him, then when he tried to elevate a fastball, he missed up and in and pegged Piscotty.
A groundout moved both into scoring position and instead of being out of the inning, Wainwright faced No. 9 hitter Dustin Garneau. He wanted to get ahead with a fastball.
Garneau ambushed it to answer Paul DeJong’s solo homer in the top of the fourth with a two-run double and a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the inning.
“That was probably the turning point of the game,” Wainwright said. “That’s an Oakland lineup for you. That’s what they do. They try and wait you out, get you in bad counts, get your pitch count up early, and for the most part did a good job of that early. The inning they scored two times I had a two-strike count and I’m thinking about punchouts. Let them both get away. . . . The way you combat that is to throw good quality strikes, right? If you’re 0-1, 1-2 on everybody it’s hard to be on the offensive when you’re hitting.”
The first weekend series of August offered a showcase, too, for the A’s additions at the trade deadline — and a reminder of what could happen to the Cardinals because they didn’t add.
In his first start since the A’s acquired him from Cincinnati, Tanner Roark (7-7) struck out six and held the Cardinals to a run in five innings. Lefty Jake Diekman, who Oakland pulled from Kansas City before Wednesday’s trade deadline, had the key out Saturday when he struck out Kolten Wong on a full-count pitch to leave two runners stranded. Called in to face Wong on Sunday in the eighth with a runner on base, Diekman did what the Cardinals had.
He turned a walk to Marcell Ozuna into a runner in scoring position with a wild pitch. Wong then tagged him with an RBI single to cut the A’s lead to 3-2. That hit excused Diekman from the game and got Jose Martinez an at-bat against Joakim Soria.
Martinez catapulted a breaking ball to deep center at the Coliseum — right where they will be installing seats for an upcoming football game.
The seats weren’t there yet Saturday.
Canha was for the catch.
“I thought it was going to be at least at the wall,” Martinez said. “Tough ballpark. The ball died. Bad luck for us.”
Sometimes a team doesn’t get the breaks, and sometimes it breaks themselves.
The Cardinals, who still lead the wild-card race, tumbled to 1½-games back of the leading Chicago Cubs in the division, though their series was the NL Central appetizer for the A's before they head to Wrigley Field for a three-game series this week. The Cardinals head to Los Angeles, where the best in the National League awaits — and doesn’t need much help. The Dodgers are a challenging enough opponent. The Cardinals don’t need to play against themselves, too.
“In competition, you give something away — it’s already hard enough,” Shildt said. “That’s the frustrating part of these two days because we’re talking about back-to-back days with seven walks. Just not a good recipe. That’s why you end up losing two in a row. . . .
“We’ll be better.”
Or the standings only will get worse.