MINNEAPOLIS — A pair of clipped starts and a pitching staff picked apart in the past few weeks by injuries already has forced the Cardinals to make quick changes for a short season.
Persisting, familiar struggles on offense only invite them.
Less than a week into a new season the Cardinals cannot shake an old uncertainty off their cleats. Unable to get a runner safely to second base all Wednesday night at Target Field, the Cardinals mustered only as many hits as Minnesota scored runs in a 3-0 victory to sweep its home-opening series. The offensive spark last weekend that illuminated the kind of offense the Cardinals could be dimmed quickly during a three-game losing streak. The questions burn just as bright as they did entering the season and will until the results change — or the lineup does.
“The thing about it is you don’t want to overreact,” manager Mike Shildt said. “This is an offense that a couple of games (ago) this group was touting as being a really explosive, dynamic office. It’s a very capable group. Clearly, the last couple of days ¯ not as consistent as we would like. A lot of confidence in this group. I don’t expect any wholesale changes.”
If the ineffectiveness of the offense prompts the Cardinals to scan the roster for alternates — Lane Thomas has one start so far, and prospect Dylan Carlson looms as a possible jolt on the horizon — it has been injuries that necessitated they do that for pitching. Miles Mikolas originally was scheduled to start Wednesday’s series finale in Minnesota, but instead he’ll soon have season-ending surgery. Daniel Ponce de Leon learned Sunday that he would get the start, though as he readied for it there was a brief flicker that day that he would have to pitch in relief. So he scrambled to get his cleats and jersey on in case.
He threw a bullpen session Monday, and he felt his arm lag a bit — lacking the timing and snap that he had throughout summer camp.
“Didn’t really have the groove,” Ponce de Leon said.
Ponce de Leon (0-1) needed 31 pitches to get through the first inning, and a leadoff walk became a 1-0 lead for the impressive Twins. The Cardinals’ righthander called the Minnesota lineup that set a major-league record for homers last season a “big, laborious challenge.”
Ponce de Leon finished the first inning with an eight-pitch strikeout that ended with a curve, and that pitch got better as the game got deeper. His fastball never had the command that earned him the start. Ponce de Leon struck out eight, including Josh Donaldson twice on a total of six pitches. But the scatter of his fastball might have cost him more calls.
Ponce de Leon allowed a solo homer in the fourth inning and hit a batter. He appeared to have the strikeout to end that inning, but home plate umpire Jerry Meals didn’t give him any of the three close pitches.
“I looked,” Ponce de Leon said of checking the video for those pitches. “Nothing I can do. There’s no accountability either. Just goes on my stats. That’s about it.”
Said Shildt: “Sometimes when you’re all over the place, you may not get a strike zone occasionally. Balls have a tendency to get missed a little bit more.”
The contrast to Ponce de Leon was the hex Twins starter Rich Hill had over the Cardinals’ hitters. Familiarity seemed to favor the Cardinals entering this two-game interleague series to start their road schedule. Awaiting them were veteran pitchers who they either had seen a lot, or could because of the wealth of video and data on Tuesday starter Homer Bailey and Hill (1-0). Neither had been particularly effective against the Cardinals in their career. Bailey allowed the Cardinals a .512 slugging percentage against in his career, and he and Hill had ERAs greater than 5.00 against the Cardinals.
Combined, they held the Cardinals to two runs in 10 innings at Target Field, and both runs came on one swing — Tyler O’Neill’s homer Tuesday. Hill and Bailey struck out as many Cardinals (six) as they allowed hits (six). Hill seesawed between a curveball and a fastball that he could elevate at 89 mph and still get swings and misses because hitters had to respect the drop of his breaking ball. Of the Cardinals three batters who got singles Wednesday, only Paul Goldschmidt was left stranded.
A single in the second was erased on a forceout.
A single in the eighth set up a double play on an infield popup.
“Just couldn’t put anything together — that is probably the best way to describe it,” Shildt said. “(Hill) had the breaking ball going, had some deception off of it. A little bit of elevation to it. We put together some good at-bats. Not as many as we would like, and not as many in a row. You don’t put in as many consistent at-bats as you’d like, and the ones you do you don’t have a lot to show for it.”
Different year, same sag, and that could invite the Cardinals to make moves swifter because they’re not dealing with the small sample size of a few series.
They have seven months of baseball in 2019 to draw on. A drag on the offense continues to be the back end of the lineup, where the outfielders have been hitting. As group, the lower third of the lineup is three for 24 (.125) during the losing streak, and one of those hits was O’Neill’s homer from the eighth spot in the lineup. Any tinkering is likely to start there — in the outfield, with a new look or a new prospect.
Ponce de Leon left the game in the fourth as Carlos Martinez did the night before, and the Cardinals’ expanded bullpen responded with an encore. In the series, the relievers threw nine scoreless innings against an AL force.
The offense never gave them a lead to protect.
“A lot of positives — just not enough offense to be able to shake hands or give some air high-fives,” Shildt said. “Don’t want to be knee-jerk. We go (through) the right process enough, we’ll be in good shape. Although not foolproof, the other way cab be — if there’s a little bit of inconsistency, swing and miss in the zone, timing doesn’t look right after a period of time. Then we have to make a consideration of doing something a little different.”
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