CHICAGO — If the Cardinals saw their weekend getaway to Wrigley Field, with a rivalry renewed and full capacity restored, as a chance to show the Chicago Cubs, the crowd, and a national television audience their place in this division race, they certainly got it.
It’s not where they aspire.
Rather than overcome the injuries, inconsistencies, and ragged fraying of a roster in urgent need of reinforcement, the Cardinals had their maladies exploited. The Cubs turned five walks in the second inning into a five-run rally that flicked away the Cardinals’ meager lead and became a 7-2 loss Saturday night. Less than 13 days after they sat atop the National League Central, the Cardinals are in a freefall, landing Sunday morning at 32-32. As they search for an arm to lift them up, the standings have turned into a sinkhole.
“It doesn’t taste good right now. It doesn’t look good, right now,” manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s a stretch no one is enjoying. But I’m not going to overreact. I’m not going to alibi it, look the other way, and kumbaya it. That’s not it either. … Just because of this stretch doesn’t mean things are overly sideways. It means we’ve got to figure it out, dig a little deeper, keep moving.”
The Cardinals have lost 10 of their previous 12 games, eight of their past nine, and they carry a pitching staff, riddled by injuries, that is aching for assistance. Starter John Gant could not complete the second inning Saturday because he could not command the strike zone. The Cardinals lead the majors in walks allowed, and Gant contributed five to the team total. Four of those runs scored — two pushed home by a bases-loaded walk and a bases-loaded hit batter. To avoid a sweep at Wrigley and a losing record, the Cardinals turn to Carlos Martinez for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. All the former All-Star has done is allow 15 runs in his previous 4 2/3 innings.
In the past 17 days, as Jack Flaherty went on the injured list and Miles Mikolas returned to it, the only starter to get a win is veteran Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals came to Chicago to regain traction.
They got a reckoning.
“We haven’t been able to create as many edges,” Shildt said. “We’ve been giving away too much of the competition. When you give away competition in a thin-margin industry you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way, and we’ve been able to do that. You mention injuries — but I’m not going to make that excuse.”
Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks offered a clinic on the kind of outing the Cardinals have been missing, the kind that brings calm to any rotation storm. He allowed two runs on three hits and struck out two in six innings. It wasn’t flashy. It was steady. It wasn’t overpowering. It was grounded. Both of the runs he allowed came on leadoff home runs — by Nolan Arenado and Paul DeJong. And that was it. No walks preceded the pop to cause problems. The longest inning he had involved the only walk he allowed, and still the Cardinals stretched it to six batters.
He retired both Cardinals who had a swing with runners in scoring position, and that started a run of retiring 10 consecutive batters to finish his start.
In 22 career starts against the Cardinals, Hendricks improved to 11-3, and he has been for years what the Cardinals are lacking in this downturn. In his past six starts, Hendricks has pitched at least six innings, walked no more than three (and only did that once), and gave the Cubs a quality start each time. They’ve won all six games.
These aren’t the starts of an ace.
They aren’t the starts of a contender.
“He’s the same guy we’ve seen since I’ve been in the league,” DeJong said. “When you look at his (velocity) numbers and things like that we tend to think we can hit everything. He knows how to get guys out with his stuff. We’ve just got to execute and be a little bit more stubborn in the box and not get ourselves out.”
Gant (4-4) didn’t give the Cubs that choice.
He put too many on.
Staked to a 1-0 lead by Arenado’s homer in the top of the second, Gant got one out into the bottom of the inning before it came apart. He didn’t get “the shutdown inning” that often dictates the game, Shildt said. So much of what has ailed the Cardinals this season converged on that one inning. The roster has been convulsed by abbreviated starts. The pitching staff has let opposing lineups walk all over them.
Gant walked Willson Contreras ahead of Ian Happ’s two-run homer, so instead of a tie game, the lead was flipped. Gant then walked the next three batters — the bottom three batters in the Cubs’ lineup — and loaded the bases with a full-count walk to Hendricks. A popup gave Gant a brief reprieve and a chance to sidestep traffic and leapfrog to the third.
He walked back into trouble.
Two outs into the second inning, with at least 19 outs left to get, Gant walked Kris Bryant with the bases loaded and then walked himself — to the dugout. The Cubs had two hits and one hit batsmen in the inning, and, like Rumpelstiltskin, spun that straw into gold.
The Cardinals know how that tale ends.
“It has been a story more than we care for it to be,” Shildt said. “The fact of the matter is we’re last in the league in walks. And one of my things that I talk about a fair amount and we’ve done very well for the most part is we give nothing away and we look to take everything in competition. There’s frustration. I can’t alibi it. Trying to find solutions because I’m not here to complain about it. We’ve got to find a way to get better.”
The Cubs added a couple runs later, including Joc Pederson’s third homer in as many games and second of the weekend. An illustration of the Cardinals’ issues came in the seventh as closer Alex Reyes threw a scoreless inning. It was only his third inning of the month.
He’s twice pitched in losses.
He’s been available more often than he’s been needed because the Cardinals haven’t had the leads that need closing. What they need most is an infusion of quality starting pitching or else the troubles are just beginning.
“If you go back 14 days, a recent period of time, we had a three-game lead in this division, (so) why would I run around like a chicken with my head cut off and the sky is falling?” Shildt said. “Again, am I pleased? No. Is this group pleased? Absolutely not. Is there room for improvement? Sure. And we’ve got to identify it and we’ve got to get better.
“We’ve not been good enough recently,” Shildt concluded his press conference late Saturday. “And, again, I’ll take the responsibility of that.”