The other shoe drops and flattens St. Louis Cardinals bullpen

WASHINGTON -- All those ragged games the St. Louis Cardinals played in the last homestand proved more costly to their fortunes than it first appeared, and they weren’t particularly pretty the first time.

A mini-crisis in their starting pitching then led to a short-term crunch Sunday that may have cost them a 10-2 loss to the Washington Nationals.

In the team’s past four games in St. Louis, manager Mike Matheny was coerced into using his relievers for 18 2/3 of the necessary 36 innings. Any time your relievers pitch more than your starters over that many games, you’re asking for trouble, and trouble finally answered the call.

Matheny didn’t want to use two of his most effective, but hardest-worked, relievers during a seventh inning that quickly became a mess. Seung-Hwan Oh was not at Matheny’s disposal at all, he said. Ace setup man Kevin Siegrist, who led the majors in appearances last year and has already pitched 22 times this year, was available for only one batter.

That compounded the limits the Cardinals had already self-imposed. Matheny wanted to get two of his everyday players, Yadier Molina and Stephen Piscotty, off their feet for a day.

“Today was a day when it caught up to everybody,” Matheny said.

Before this series, the Cardinals identified the surprising deficiency that was sapping their progress: starting pitching. They clearly made some fixes. Their three veteran starters all pitched deep into their games, and one of their two 24-year olds, Michael Wacha, looked as sound as he had since the first week of May. He used a lively fastball and better feel for the lower part of the strike zone to hold the powerful Nationals to four hits over six innings.

“Definitely a step forward,” Wacha said. “I felt like I was executing better down in the zone and it felt like a start to build off of.”

But the Cardinals still haven’t found their sense of direction. What undid them Sunday was some iffy bullpen management in less-than-ideal circumstances. Oh had been efficient pitching the eighth inning the night before, needing just 14 pitches, but he also had warmed up two previous times and he’d felt it by the next morning.

Matheny was reserving Matt Bowman for the eighth inning and Siegrist for whenever Bryce Harper came up next. It turns out he came up in the seventh inning, but by then, nobody cared too much about what he would do. Harper was the seventh man up that inning after Jonathan Broxton and Dean Kiekhefer had meltdown appearances and the Nationals had already had scored five runs to make it a blowout.

All that in play, Kiekhefer was asked to face Jayson Werth, and that just didn’t seem like it was going to work out.

The Nationals outfielder is a good hitter in general, but he feasts on left-handed pitching. His career OPS against lefties was .929 coming into that seventh inning, when Dusty Baker summoned the long-locked, bearded man as a pinch hitter. He hit the second pitch he saw from the lefty Kiekhefer, an 87 mph fastball in the danger zone, the upper third of the strike zone.

The ball landed well up the hill in center field for a grand slam. Kiekhefer was more upset that he had missed on a few pitches to the man who brought Werth into the game in the first place, left-handed outfielder Ben Revere. Kiekhefer walked him to load the bases for Werth.

“Just not good situational pitching by me,” Kiekhefer said.

One could argue that Kiekhefer never should have been pitching in that situation, but the better argument was that that situation shouldn’t have come about.