Cardinals must right the ship quickly

BOSTON -- One bad game doesn't make a World Series. But if the St. Louis Cardinals' opening-night clunker is a sign of things to come, even the Rally Squirrel and Allen Craig's pet tortoise might be tempted to go negative on Twitter.

The 2013 Series was billed as a matchup of the two best teams in baseball. Nine innings into the festivities, that proclamation is only half correct. While Jon Lester was dazzling in the Boston Red Sox's 8-1 victory Wednesday, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz came alive out of the 3-4 spots in the batting order and the Red Sox continued to display the opportunistic bent that helped them dispense with Tampa Bay and Detroit in the playoffs, the Cardinals are out of sorts and grasping for positives.

Sure-handed shortstop Pete Kozma, the focal point of a big reversed call in the first inning, is fielding under the Mendoza Line. Staff ace Adam Wainwright vows to look at the video of his uncharacteristically bad outing in Game 1 as many times as it takes to ensure that he's better in his next outing. And Carlos Beltran, he of the Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig postseason résumé, has some very sore ribs after an encounter with the Fenway Park bullpen wall that prompted him to be taken to a local hospital for tests.

The CT scan and X-rays on Beltran were negative, but no one can say whether he'll be ready to play in Game 2 on Thursday night. And even if he does play, how productive will he be? Is this going to be another Hanley Ramirez-type situation, in which a player tries to gut it out from a sense of duty and obligation only to discover that he's too physically limited to have an impact? Stay tuned.

If there was an encouraging sign after the opening-night fiasco, it was the professional manner in which the Cardinals handled the setback. The St. Louis players -- Wainwright, in particular -- stood in front of the media and answered every last question with calmness, poise and a sense of accountability for the mess that just transpired.

The Cardinals also seem confident that things will be better in Game 2, in part because the young pitcher they'll be sending to the mound is a rookie in name only.

Michael Wacha, who will face John Lackey on Thursday night, has the stuff, demeanor and all-around mound presence to render the 85 2/3 big league innings on his résumé irrelevant. A little more than a year removed from his Texas A&M Aggie days, Wacha has treated Cardinals fans to some memorable moments since joining the team from Triple-A Memphis.

Those moments include a near no-hitter against Washington that was spoiled by a Ryan Zimmerman infield hit, and another near no-hitter against Pittsburgh in the National League Division Series. Wacha strode into a rabid PNC Park in an elimination game and pitched the Cardinals into the next round amid suffocating pressure and wall-to-wall background noise.

When Fozzie's Sandwich Emporium in suburban St. Louis recently added the "Wacha Wacha" milkshake to the menu, the kid knew he had officially arrived.

"Michael's got talent," said Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, "and he doesn't get scared on the mound. He's gonna go after people and keep the ball down. And when you keep the ball down, good things happen."

Or as Craig, the Cardinals' designated hitter, put it: "He carries himself extremely well and he has a confidence about him. When he walks around and takes the ball on the mound, everyone else around him has confidence too."

Even if Wacha spins a gem, the Cardinals suddenly have some other concerns on the agenda. Both Kozma and David Freese were shaky on the left side of the infield, and the bullpen, which has been so impressive during the postseason, is showing some signs of fraying. After Wainwright left the game trailing 5-0, the St. Louis pen allowed three more runs to turn it into a full-fledged blowout. Left-hander Kevin Siegrist, who threw 25 straight scoreless innings in August and September, gave up a homer to Ortiz and has now allowed five hits to the 13 batters he has faced in the postseason.

The Cardinals might be able to surmount some of their other deficiencies if they could hit a lick, but the offense has been dormant for much of October. The Cards have scored 43 runs in 12 games and batted .210 in the postseason, and that includes a first-round pummeling of A.J. Burnett and a 9-0 win over Clayton Kershaw in the clinching game of the National League Championship Series.

"We've all seen how the postseason can be dominated by pitching," St. Louis second baseman Matt Carpenter said. "Everybody here has good starting pitching, and that's how they outlast the 162-game grind to get to the postseason. At the same time, we really haven't hit as good as we possibly could."

The Cardinals had to reach for silver linings Wednesday. Matt Holliday hit a monster home run long after the game had been decided, and Freese became the answer to a trivia question when he hit into the first 1-2-3 double play in a World Series since the Mets' John Milner did it against Oakland in the 1973 Fall Classic. Freese also barely avoided being thrown out from right field by Shane Victorino on a single to right field in the ninth inning. Although that would have made for a suitable ending, it's hard to imagine a more embarrassing way to wrap up a game.

Moving forward, the Cardinals are encouraged by what they've seen out of Craig, who returned to the lineup in the series opener after missing seven weeks with a foot injury. Craig contributed a single in four at-bats and thought he saw the ball well after all the time he missed.

"I felt good," Craig said. "Going into the game, I told myself not to worry too much about mechanics. I just wanted to compete, give it my best shot, and do my best to square the ball up. I felt like I had some pretty good at-bats. There's something to build off."

As ugly as the game was, Wainwright theorizes that things might have been different out of the chute if he had come to the park and pitched to the best of his ability. But he walked Jacoby Ellsbury to begin the bottom of the first inning, and things quickly spiraled downhill. Wainwright's mechanics were so bad, it was like an out-of-body experience.

"All the things that happened tonight can be attributed to me going out there and setting a terrible tone," Wainwright said. "A starting pitcher has the ability to lose a game in minutes. He can also completely dominate the game so that the other team has no chance. Tonight, with the way Lester threw the ball, I lost the game in minutes.

"When you're on this stage and you pitch bad, you need to stand up and take the blame. I can shoulder that load, because I know for a fact that I will use this game to make me better. I have no problem saying I stunk tonight, because I know I'll be better next time."

For now, Wainwright can only sit in the dugout and watch as his young understudy, Wacha, tries to pitch St. Louis even in the Series. The Cardinals need to put on a better showing in Game 2 than they did in the opener, or it's going to be a long flight home for everyone.