DENVER — Scrambling once again to cover unplanned innings because of the sudden injury of a starter, the bullpen held on as long as possible Sunday at Coors Field for the Cardinals’ offense still waiting to go.
They’ve signaled this is the time.
This certainly was the place.
They’ve said they should go.
They do not move.
For the third time in four games at one of the finest places to hit given the thinnest of air and widest of outfields, the Cardinals stalled with two runs after the ninth inning. That left them vulnerable to the walk-off theatrics of Elias Diaz and the Rockies. Colorado scored twice in its final two at-bats to tie the game and then overtake the Cardinals for a 3-2 victory on the Fourth of July. Diaz roped a full-count single to left in the ninth off Cardinals closer Alex Reyes for his second walk-off hit of the weekend and a series victory for the hosts.
In 10 consecutive road losses, the Cardinals have failed to score more than two runs.
“We’re still stuck in a funk,” infielder Matt Carpenter said. “To me, I don’t see this as a thing where all of a sudden we snap our fingers tomorrow and we get 14 hits and score 10 runs and we just go. It’s going to consistently need to get better each day. Consistently take individual at-bats better, and honestly, I think it’s coming. It’s just not coming as fast as we hope.”
Carlos Martinez left Sunday’s game in the middle of the fourth inning because of a bruised thumb that made it difficult to grip either of his fastballs. He pitched one inning through the soreness before surrendering to it and leaving 5 2/3 innings for the bullpen to cover. Newcomers Dan Waddell and Justin Miller, each of whom was added to the staff over the past week, threw themselves into the breach and emerged with a one-run lead after 2 2/3 scoreless innings.
Martinez injured his thumb on a foul ball he hit in his only at-bat, and it swelled and stiffened just as he was getting in a rhythm with nine of his 10 outs not leaving the infield.
He’ll be evaluated Monday in San Francisco to determine if he’ll join the list of injured pitchers or make his next scheduled start, at Wrigley Field.
“I think we’re really good,” he said, “only frustrated right now.”
Two weeks ago, the Cardinals began a run of 13 consecutive games against teams with losing records, two of whom are in last place. The schedule offered a chance to rework their pitching and rethink their offense while facing some retched opponents. The Cardinals were .500 at the start of the stretch against losing teams and spent the next 14 days showing they fit right in. They went 5-8 overall, lost four-game series to Pittsburgh and Colorado, and could not savor the nougat in the middle of their season. Now comes the rocky road.
Their next six road games are against first-place San Francisco and the rival Cubs, and their next 13 consecutive games are against those two teams.
The time to go might have went.
“Listen, it’s just hard to go through this, and we don’t have a ton of answers,” Carpenter said. “It’s not for lack of talent or lack of care. It’s just of those things — we’ve got to find a way to keep pushing and get on the other side of this because I’m confident that we will.”
The four-game series at Coors Field was Nolan Arenado’s return to Colorado for the first time since he was traded in February to the Cardinals, bringing several dozen members of his family to town. The holiday weekend began with the first of four standing ovations from fans for the first-time visitor and, poetically, ended with his cousin coming home.
Joshua Fuentes, Arenado’s potential heir at third base for the Rockies and his cousin, sparked the ninth-inning rally with a two-out single to center. He took second on a wild pitch, and he wheeled around third on Diaz’s single to slide home ahead of the throw.
The Cardinals took a 2-1 lead into the eighth built entirely out of a two-run homer by Harrison Bader — his second homer of the series — and resolute innings from relievers.
One swing. Two runs. That was the offense.
“You always think you’re coming in here and it’s going to be a complete slugfest,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “We score 15 runs in the series, and they score 14 in the series (and) only pull one out of here. We pitched our tails off. We really pitched our butts off. ... This is a game of inches and a game of placement.”
And a game of revelation.
The Rockies, burly at home, have allowed two or fewer runs in six of their past seven home games. They sent All-Star righthander German Marquez against the Cardinals, and he followed what his teammates had done in previous games — just with better stuff.
Marquez struck out 11 Cardinals, eight of them coming after Bader’s homer. And he walked only one. In the four game series, Rockies starters walked a total of four Cardinals. In the first two games of the series, the two starters, Antonio Senzatela and Chi Chi Gonzalez, walked zero Cardinals combined in 14 innings.
Walks are the gasoline of Coors’ conflagrations, the fuel that turns homers teams know they’re likely to allow from solo to so many.
With so few, the Cardinals lacked the opportunities to erupt for runs outside of the 10th inning Friday night — when, by rule, they started with a free runner on base. The Cardinals did not strike out much in the first two games but also didn’t generate much all weekend, and the Rockies’ willingness to challenge the Cardinals’ lineup was more telling than the scores.
“Base runners are key to big innings, base runners are key to scoring runs, and if you’re not getting them ...,” Carpenter said. “Walks, as we’ve seen all year, can really hurt you. I think at this ballpark more than any ballpark, walks are detrimental. The opposing side knows that. They did a great job of not giving us any free passes. We might have helped them out a few times. If you don’t have base runners, it’s really hard to score. You’re playing for one big swing.”
Carpenter settled for one small play to try and invigorate the offense. His leadoff single in the second set up Bader’s homer, and in the eighth with two outs, Carpenter dropped a bunt on a 3-1 pitch to defy the shift and try to get something, anything going for the Cardinals.
They did not move.
They do continue to press.
The Rockies turned a single, a steal, a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly off Giovanny Gallegos into the tying run in the eighth, and Diaz’s two-out liner in the ninth ended it.
Ten games out of first place in the NL Central, the Cardinals are as close to the last-place Pirates in the standings as they are the first-place Brewers.
“Everybody in our lineup is human, everybody has a competitive spirit and everybody wants to be the guy who turns the tide,” Carpenter said. “I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of that going on. This stretch has gone on long enough to where we can’t continue to think that way. We know good at-bats over a consistent period of time is what’s really going to turn this. I’m still hopeful that it’s going to turn.”