ST. LOUIS -- They have determination, they have grit. What they don't have so far is starting pitching. Wins seem more closely correlated to the latter than the former.
The St. Louis Cardinals walked away from their second encounter with the first-place Chicago Cubs with another lost opportunity. But after Wednesday's 9-8 loss in which they nearly rallied out of a five-run hole against the best right-hander in baseball, the Cardinals feel good about the intangibles.
Carlos Martinez did what Michael Wacha had done the night before, nearly getting chased from the game before many of the fans had settled into their seats. But this time, a chewed-up Cardinals bullpen couldn't pick up the slack, so Martinez was going to have to stand out there and take the abuse to his ERA if he didn't figure it out.
Not so surprisingly, he did. Martinez finally found a rhythm and managed to get through five innings. Surprisingly, the Cardinals made Jake Arrieta look like a mid-rotation starter, scoring four runs off him in five innings and then continuing to come at Chicago's solid bullpen until its closer finally got out of a jam to end the game.
Arrieta's game score, 40, was his lowest in more than a year. That, perhaps, is something to feel good about even if an eight-game deficit in the division standings isn't. The Cardinals seemed to be taking their second lost series to the Cubs with a dose of optimism.
"I think we still made a statement. We were down 6-1 right off the bat. The game before, we were kind of in the same situation. We were tired of it," second baseman Kolten Wong said. "Our pitchers have been our go-to these past few years. It was time for us to step up and I think we all kind of felt that, too. We just wanted to make this a game and show that we have our pitchers' backs."
The Cardinals, who haven't missed the playoffs in six years, don't take losing well. Manager Mike Matheny became visibly agitated during his postgame comments at several points, but he said he left the series with a good feeling about his team, at least the intangible part. There's that word again.
"We've had some games walking out of here a little embarrassed just because we know we're better. To get back into that game and fight like that and get within striking distance with a chance to even win it in the ninth, that's a great effort," Matheny said. "The only frustration is feeling like you had it or were going to get it and not finishing it off."
One fateful inning did in Martinez, much as it had Wacha the night before. Martinez worked a good inning before it and three good innings after it. In the second, the Cubs hit line drives all over the field. The most damaging was Jason Heyward's double into the right-field corner.
Martinez puffed up with pride a bit when describing how he was able to regroup and stay in the game without a long reliever available. Tyler Lyons pitched three innings the night before in relief of Wacha.
"If it was somebody else, they might have given up. But I really tried to support myself and I tried to get the ball longer into the game to help my team," Martinez said through an interpreter.
As powerful as the Cardinals have been, standing second in the major leagues in slugging, they haven't quite been able to overcome their erratic starting pitching. The Cardinals are coming off a 4-6 homestand in which their starter failed to get an out in the sixth inning in six of the nine games.
"It's no secret here. We just can't keep putting up six-run innings and expect to stay in games," Matheny said.