ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Thursday morning, the Cardinals took a punch to the gut. Matt Carpenter, the team’s hottest hitter, was placed on the disabled list with a strained oblique and is out indefinitely.
Thursday afternoon, they found themselves celebrating.
After three straight losses to the Pirates, the last of which featured a blown four-run lead, the Birds finally broke through with a home victory.
The turnaround started with Adam Wainwright.
“We needed that game. We needed a happy flight today,” the Cardinal ace said. “Today I really wanted to push it as long as I possibly could.”
Wainwright stopped the skid with an emphatic performance, scattering five hits over seven innings and allowing just one run while striking out nine. It capped a remarkable first half turnaround, giving him his eighth win (something he said he desperately wanted to achieve in the first half) and lowering his ERA to 4.49.
“I was having fun mixing and matching two seam and four seams, cutters, curves and changes. I was mixing my delivery speeds, I was pitching out there,” he said. “That’s how I did in 2014 right there. That’s how I was planning on pitching all last year, too. Now I’ve kind of found that again.”
“That’s what we needed from our ace. He came in planning on picking it up for us,” Matheny added. “You talk about a stopper, a guy who can take one of those bad runs and figure out a way to make [a victory] happen. Today was a great example of that.”
Behind him, the offense peppered the Pirates in the final two thirds of the game. From the fourth through the seventh, the Cardinals scored or put multiple runners on base every inning, seemingly galvanized by the mounting adversity they face. Greg Garcia stepped in for Carpenter at leadoff and worked a seven-pitch walk to start the game. He reached base twice, scored and saw 19 pitches on the day.
Both Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty homered, accounting for four of the five Cardinal runs. It was a charged response to a string of bad news, one the 42,000 fans latched onto with gusto. For the first time in days, Busch Stadium seemed to recognize the team on the field.
“I think Cardinal baseball is picking up for guys when they go down. It happened a lot last year. It’s not foreign to this team. I think we’ll do a good job and keep this thing rolling,” Piscotty said. “Stay the course, stay focused. No reason to give up by any means.”
In fact, some think the litany of injuries could have the opposite effect. Matheny has talked repeatedly about the Cardinals’ resiliency in recent years. He believes his players are undaunted by injury and pressure and may even play better when challenged by lowered expectations.
Wainwright watched the team respond that way last season, when he was forced to miss nearly the entire year after tearing his Achilles. He views of the current state of affairs as a similar opportunity for St. Louis to prove its mettle.
“I don’t know if you can plug one person in and just completely start over and be as good as you were with Matt Carpenter. But honestly, we needed a kick in the pants anyway,” he said. “We needed a jump start, something to get us going. Last year, me getting hurt, Matt Holliday and Matt Adams getting hurt, maybe that was the kick last year. Everybody said, ‘We can still do this.’ Hopefully we’ll take that attitude now.”
The Cardinals still face a challenge at the top of their order, as Matt Carpenter wasn’t just a solid leadoff man, but one of the most complete hitters in the league. There isn’t a bat that can replicate what he does, but Thursday’s victory proved the Cardinals can win with a different strategy.
“I think we’ll have to do what we need to do. The guy leading off in the past is the one who’s led our team in home runs. So it’s a different deal,” Matheny said, noting Garcia’s relentless at bats and Kolten Wong’s use of a bunt to reach base. “We played a little small ball and let the big boys do their thing too.”
With Carpenter and slugger Brandon Moss out, the singular nature of offensive threats is shifting toward dependence on the collective for the Cardinals. They still have power, but their greatest asset is the sum of their parts, similar to what made their attack effective last year.
“We have all the ability here. We’re not asking guys to play above their ability, we’re just asking them to come in and take advantage of the opportunity. To do what they do,” Matheny said.
It’s a message the role players have taken to heart, exemplified by Garcia.
“I don’t feel like there’s pressure. I don’t need to try to carry the team, I just need to go out and do my part,” the infielder said. “Just do a little part, play Cardinal baseball and we’ll get wins.”
That strategy netted 100 victories last year.
The Cardinals have one more series with the Brewers in Milwaukee before the break, then open the second half with a 10-game homestand.