ST. LOUIS -- Once upon a time, one of baseball’s livelier interleague matchups, like the best heartland division rivalry, was dominated by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Now, the Cardinals find confident rivals on their western and northern borders for the first time in their history. The Chicago Cubs might be the best team in baseball, and the Kansas City Royals are the defending world champions. Those teams’ fans can now converge on St. Louis and talk the talk while letting their teams walk the walk.
With a liberal representation of their supporters in attendance, the Royals pulled out a 3-2 victory at Busch Stadium in 12 innings Wednesday night. The Royals were urged on by a surprising number of “Let’s go, Royals!” chants. Not long ago, the Cardinals had just as many fans at Kauffman Stadium as the Royals did, and there was scarcely a blue shirt in Busch Stadium when the rivalry moved across the state.
The sad truth is the Cardinals haven’t given their own fans much of a show here this season. They fought back twice from the brink Wednesday, tying the game with two out in the ninth on a Jhonny Peralta RBI single and in the 10th on a Stephen Piscotty home run, but the loss dropped them to 15-22 at home.
They have lost their past six home games.
“We love being at home, but so much has been made of it, it’s hard to deny it and not realize it,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “Overall, we just think it’s one of those things that will not even be an issue once we finish this thing at the end because we’ll play good at home and there’s no reason we shouldn’t. There’s an advantage to being here on a number of fronts, in my mind. Tonight would have been a good one to get it going in the opposite direction.”
Instead, a couple of 10th-inning errors nearly did them in Wednesday before their bullpen, down to its last man, finally succumbed.
Subpar fielding has cost the Cardinals several games this season. Pitcher Seung Hwan Oh threw wildly to first base on a pickoff attempt, allowing the go-ahead run to reach third base. Two batters later, Matt Carpenter tried to field what would have been an easy double-play ball but instead flubbed it, allowing it to go into center field to bring in that run.
In the 12th, Kansas City used a pair of doubles off Seth Maness to push the winning run across. Neither was particularly hit well. The key shot was Alcides Escobar's fly ball near the right-field line. Piscotty tried to make a sliding catch, but he couldn’t come up with it as the ball landed just inside the line, its location upheld by a replay review.
The Cardinals have usually been able to pinpoint the issue that has dragged them down -- disappointing starting pitching -- but Carlos Martinez has found one of the best grooves by a St. Louis starter all season. He is getting ground balls galore, allowing him to pitch deep into games while limiting a team’s chances of scoring runs.
While striking out just 16 batters in his past four starts combined, Martinez has given up just two runs over 28⅓ innings. Matheny pulled him after he gave up a leadoff single in the seventh, mindful of high pitch counts -- 109 and 110 -- in his previous two starts.
“We’re going to keep close watch. You’re talking about a young pitcher here we still have to be careful with,” Matheny said.
The Cardinals simply couldn’t score, an odd result for a powerful offense facing Edinson Volquez, who had allowed 12 runs while getting three outs in his previous start against the Houston Astros. The Cardinals’ futility meant they had to try to rally against the Royals’ bullpen, and that is rarely a sound strategy. St. Louis, though, managed to solve Wade Davis with key hits from Jedd Gyorko and Peralta.
“Overall, saw a lot of fight, saw a lot of positives, but the negatives seemed to pull us down,” Matheny said.