CHICAGO — However well the Cardinals play elsewhere or claim they will eventually, they have been vivisected this season by their archrivals, their soft spots exposed and then poked and prodded, much to the relish of the Cubs’ home crowd.
Wrigley Field has brought out the worst in the Cardinals.
The Cubs snapped a tie game against an injured Adam Wainwright in the fifth inning and spun two errors and a late homer into a 5-1 victory Sunday night at the Friendly Confines. The win completed a three-game sweep for the Cubs, their second in as many visits by the Cardinals this season. The last time the Cardinals started a season with six losses in their first six games in Chicago was 1907, seven years before Wrigley opened and back when the Cubs were kings. What’s old is new, and what’s going wrong for the Cardinals is getting old.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to make the Ws stack up a little bit better,” said Wainwright, who will return to St. Louis to have a hamstring strain evaluated and likely land on the injured list. “It doesn’t make sense. We should be right at the top of this division, and we’re just not. There are no excuses for it. We’re just getting outslugged, outpunched, and we’ve got to go out there and do better. As a whole we have not done what we’re capable of doing.”
The Cardinals had won five of six before returning to Wrigley for the weekend and thought they had some rhythm to their rotation, some light breaking through their offensive haze. The Cubs humbled them. Wrigley brought them back down to .500 – and did not stop there. With a losing record, at 31-32, they’ve got 99 games to go and the Cubs aren’t their only problem. They scored six runs total in the three games at Wrigley and have scored three or fewer in 17 of their past 27 games. At this rate, they’ll play in London before they play in the postseason.
The standings demand a reckoning.
“There is an identity to this team that is formed,” manager Mike Shildt said. “You have a better pulse and your team gets crystallized after some period of time. I think we’re at that point where there’s a crystallization of where we current stand and what we have. There is constant, continual improvement to what we have and if we lose sight of that I think that’s when we’ll be in trouble. … We’re not impervious to change. We can’t let frustration come into it.”
Yet there is evidence littered throughout the weekend that it has.
With two out in the fifth inning and the offense famished for runs, Wainwright felt he needed to get to second base on his line drive to left-center. He needed to pitch deep into Sunday’s game with the bullpen on fumes, and because the Cardinals oh, so desperately needed a win at Wrigley. Wainwright’s hamstring sprung a few steps out of the batter’s box, was sore as he slid into second, and when he tried to pitch through it, the game came undone, too. Wainwright said he could generate the same life on his pitches with his landing leg compromised. Three of the first four hitters he faced in the inning got hits, and the fourth was starter Kyle Hendricks, who dropped a bunt. David Bote’s RBI single snapped the tie and Kyle Schwarber’s RBI double pushed the Cubs comfortably ahead.
In the span of four batters, Wainwright’s hamstring didn’t improve and a 1-1 game became a 3-1 deficit.
“It just change the whole complexion of the game, I think,” Wainwright said.
It’s not just on the mound. Cardinals around the clubhouse have pointed to moments in the past month when they’ve tried to jerk the team out of its funk. Marcell Ozuna had three hits Sunday, and yet he was caught stealing trying to create something. Cardinals have expanded the zone and ignited a flurry of recent strikeouts. Paul DeJong mentioned how there are times when it feels like the lineup isn’t trying to generate rallies but provide them all in one at-bat, and “it can actually send you down in a spiral the other way,” he said. The ivy of Wrigley has made them even itchier.
The Cardinals had nine hits Sunday and even went three-for-10 with runners in scoring position. But two of those hits didn’t produce an RBI. Their only run needed the help of an error and a bunt. To spur the offense the Cardinals have swapped starters out of the lineup and switched starters around in the lineup. A change in approach or a change in preparation would be two changes yet to try.
“It’s a wonderful question,” Shildt said. “It’s actually the million dollar St. Louis question. And there’s probably some individual answers to it. It’s a combination of us putting a swing on it and not getting a result. It’s part of us maybe trying to do too much. That’s probably one of the bigger ones, if I’m to pinpoint it.”
Hitting coach Jeff Albert said it’s becoming a question on “figuring out the things we’re able to control” and perhaps leaning on the team strengths instead of looking at how teams are adjusting to them.
The Cardinals are free from Wrigley until their final road trip of the season, in late September. Shildt spoke Sunday night of looking forward to a return, of being eager to “get back here.” That, of course, hinges on the Cardinals coming back different than when they left. Shildt was offered the examples how the addition of closer Craig Kimbrel this week had the Cubs’ clubhouse buzzing or the addition of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington reanimated the Blues and got them to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Could that jolt the Cardinals?
“I can’t say it wouldn’t create a benefit, but I want to be clear: This clubhouse doesn’t nor should it need that,” Shildt said. “Can’t say it wouldn’t be an asset. This clubhouse – it would be insulting for me to say that we need anything. We’ve got more or less what we need in this clubhouse. You say the world ‘jolt,’ and I appreciate that.
“But the reality is we’ve got to jolt ourselves.”