The root of the Cardinals’ ongoing and consuming freefall out of first place goes deeper than sidelined pitchers, and without manpower to overcome some misplaced performance the route out of this mess might not be clear without a refresh or reinforcement for the roster.
For the second time in a week and second time in this losing streak, Carlos Martinez could not sidestep a combustible inning, and left to play catchup the Cardinals continued down.
A three-run homer by Jose Ramirez punctuated the five runs Cleveland had before the end of the third inning, and that was plenty for the American League Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber in what became a 10-1 rout Tuesday night at Busch Stadium. Cleveland added four runs in the ninth inning to give the score a hue fitting for the welt rising on the Cardinals’ season.
The Cardinals have trailed after 51 of their past 54 innings played and playing from behind has increasingly put the roster in a bind, exposing how thin injuries and performances have made it without help.
“Our roster is our roster,” manager Mike Shildt said. “We feel good about the guys who are on it. It’s what we have. We have to — and I have to — figure out a way to be better with it. I think the biggest thing about being down consistently is always having to look up and fight and scratch and claw. We’ve done it. Didn’t do it (Tuesday). And again — no consolation prizes. We need to play from up front.”
The loss was the Cardinals’ sixth consecutive one, their longest slide since 2017 and longest losing streak under Shildt's guidance, and it accelerated their tumble out of first place and away from it in the NL Central Division. They've played as many games this season (61) as they did in 2020, including the postseason, and still have 101 games remaining. Their footing is loose.
They’ve lost five consecutive home games for the first time since two teams from Texas visited Busch Stadium in 2016.
The troubles go deeper than the losses.
The Cardinals noted their late rallies against Cincinnati, but none of them overtook the Reds in the four-game series sweep last weekend. In a stretch of six games that reaches to Los Angeles and back, the Cardinals have had a lead at the end of only three innings. That does not include Martinez’s previous start when the Cardinals seized a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, and had it obliterated by the Dodgers’ 10 runs against him in the bottom of the inning.
A certain way to lose is to never play from ahead.
“You play 162 games and you’re going to have ebbs and flows both ways,” Shildt said before the game Tuesday. “What’s going on with the ballclub? We just haven’t had a way to bring it home. In competitive games. A lot of those games could have gone either way. Didn’t play with the lead. That’s part of it. Weren’t able to get the big hit. Weren’t able to string anything together. Weren’t able to get the lead to bring it home.”
All those descriptions proved prophetic descriptions for Tuesday night. The Cardinals weren’t able to get the big hit with the bases loaded and a chance to tie the game against Bieber (7-3). They weren’t able to string much together, offering up only a dance club offense with a few singles here, a few singles there, and someone walking. They weren’t able to get a lead. Most of all they haven’t been able to get the starting pitching to support any of it.
The Cardinals have 60% of their planned rotation for 2021 on the injured list with Jack Flaherty (oblique), Kwang Hyun Kim (back), and Miles Mikolas (flexor tendon) in the dugout watching. Only Adam Wainwright, Wednesday’s starter and stopper candidate, and Martinez remain. Even with all the openings in the rotation to fill, Martinez has loosened his grip on the one the Cardinals need him to keep.
When the Cardinals have needed him most recently, he’s been at his worst.
The righthander has allowed 15 runs in his last 4 2/3 innings, split between two starts shortly after a peer was injured. Since throwing eight shutout innings in his first start of May, Martinez (3-6) has failed to pitch deeper than the sixth inning in any start and he’s seen his ERA bloat with a 9.97 ERA in his last 21 2/3 innings. He didn’t finish the first inning in the game that started this losing streak, and by the end of the third Tuesday he’d allowed five runs on five hits and a walk. It took him 62 pitches to get through three innings.
Martinez declined to talk to the media Tuesday.
“We don’t need more,” Shildt said when asked what Martinez, a former All-Star, had to provide the current rotation. “We need what he’s basically done all season. The last start over in LA was clearly not good — throw that out. Look at the big body of work. Clean. Effective. Getting late into games. Getting softer contact. That’s the version we need. Not any better than that. That is really good. That gets you the sixth, seventh inning, and keeps them at bay for a couple of runs, or so. That’s the version we need. Which we’ve seen. Do we need better than that? We just need the consistency of that, and that will be enough.”
Enough for Martinez, perhaps.
Enough to stabilize the season — that might have to happen from outside, and soon.
Martinez went from throwing more balls (20) than strikes (19) in Los Angeles to filling the zone with 50 strikes in his 71 pitches and four innings Tuesday. He had six swings-and-misses on his changeup, but only threw that pitch 14 times.
Bieber, the majors’ leader in strikeouts, struck out five Cardinals in six innings, and invited trouble in the fourth. He walked a batter, hit Matt Carpenter, and rookie Edmundo Sosa dented Bieber’s line with an RBI single. Another walk brought Martinez’s spot up and pinch-hitter John Nogowski took a swing with the bases loaded. Nogowski fouled a pitch back and then grounded out. That was the one time for Bieber.
The groundout ended the inning, ended the threat, and ended Martinez’s evening, shoving the bullpen back into the game to cover five innings so the late-inning trio can be available Wednesday.
If the Cardinals can get what they haven’t — a lead.
“I sound like a broken record, but we’re about to break it,” Shildt said. “We’re about to get hot. We just haven’t been able to play with a lead. We haven’t had a lead. Hard to win without it. We have to get out in front and keep playing clean defense and string together more consistent at-bats. Like I said, we’re about to get hot.”
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