ST. LOUIS -- When the St. Louis Cardinals lost the first game of this meaningful series with the New York Mets, manager Mike Matheny got defensive when someone tied it into the team’s season-long struggles at home. The Cardinals are six games under .500 at Busch Stadium and 14 games over .500 on the road.
Tuesday’s loss, Matheny explained, was the result of Jaime Garcia’s wobbly start, not an overall poor performance from the team.
“That wasn't bad baseball," Matheny said. "It's not like we had ugly play.”
By Thursday, which followed one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, Matheny couldn’t argue the team lacked ugly play. The Cardinals’ 10-6 loss to the Mets had plenty of ugly. They reverted to their early season form at Busch Stadium. They didn’t pitch the ball well or catch it reliably. By the fifth inning, they had been charged with two errors, but there were three other plays that arguably should have been made. Only two of the seven runs Adam Wainwright allowed were earned.
Above all is the disconcerting sight of Wainwright, their longtime ace, repeatedly watching line drives reach the outfield, sprinting all over the field to back up third base or home. He has reverted to his early season struggles in what is turning into easily the worst season of his career.
Thursday night you could feel Wainwright’s frustration seeping to the surface. He said he had a “good little snap session” in the Cardinals' clubhouse after he came out of the game. He said he hoped no one was watching.
“It’s been a tough one. I had two months there where I pitched the way I always pitch, like I should pitch and how I’ll pitch eventually here,” Wainwright said. “Eventually I’ll pitch deep for this team and win the game. It’s been a long, tough season.”
Jhonny Peralta booted a routine ground ball. Greg Garcia missed one, too. Those were the errors. Garcia also couldn’t catch a popup in shallow left field. Stephen Piscotty overran a bloop hit, allowing Asdrubal Cabrera to take an extra base. They even had equipment malfunctions. Wainwright lost control of his glove while trying to tag Yoenis Cespedes’ foot. It got pinched between Cespedes’ spikes and the bag and came off. After a review in New York, it was ruled Wainwright didn’t control the glove long enough to record the out.
“It’s the way it’s been going,” Wainwright said.
It’s not as if Wainwright (9-8, 4.67 ERA) pitched well and simply was the victim of sloppy fielding. He allowed nine hits over five wobbly innings. It’s becoming more and more important that the Cardinals clinch a wild-card spot as soon as possible so they can line Carlos Martinez up to start that game. He has been the only reliable starter.
If Wainwright and Garcia don’t figure out how to fix their deliveries soon, the Cardinals aren’t guaranteed to play in the NL wild-card game on Oct. 5. For the moment, they still hold a 1½-game lead on the Miami Marlins for the second spot, but they’re letting other teams linger, too. Instead of dealing the Mets’ chances a debilitating blow here, they let them back in it. The Mets now are 3½ games back.
In Wainwright’s last four starts, he has pitched 19 innings, allowed 29 hits, 23 runs (18 earned), four home runs, nine doubles and three triples. He has an 8.52 ERA and a 2.05 WHIP. Before that, it seemed as if he had turned a corner, but he was unable to maintain the crisp mechanics that had him pitching well from mid-May until this month.
Unless he has a historically dominant September, this will go down as Wainwright’s worst season by a lot. It also gives rise to questions about what kind of pitcher the Cardinals will have next year and in 2018, after which his contract expires. He is due to make $19.5 million in each of those seasons. Wainwright turns 35 on Tuesday.
“I know the kind of competitor, and what he’s saying right now, -- he has told me, ‘I’m going to get this right, and we’re going to go.’ That’s what I see, too,” manager Mike Matheny said. “There’s nothing physical. It’s August. Like everybody else, there’s fatigue.”
The Cardinals had their requisite power display, with four more home runs to add to their league-leading total (now 181), and nearly made it interesting after falling in a 7-0 hole. Brandon Moss launched two more home runs and Jedd Gyorko and Piscotty each had another. Those three have combined for 21 home runs in August alone. Moss already has 25 homers this year, just five shy of his career high.
But when the outcome was still in doubt, the Cardinals could make little traction against rookie Mets starter Seth Lugo, who pitched five scoreless innings before a calf cramp took him out of the game. The Cardinals typically have struggled against pitchers facing them for the first time.
They also have struggled when they fall behind by seven runs, which is why getting Wainwright fixed is becoming this team’s No. 1 priority.