ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Randal Grichuk’s two-out, last-gasp homer in the ninth inning of Thursday’s game one washed away the day’s sins.
His two-run shot tied the game, and set up an eventual win in the 11th inning to give the Cardinals game one of the double header.
What followed in game two was cathartic, a rejuvenated team riding the high tide of a surging offense to a 6-4 victory and a .500 record.
But like a wave, the moment can fade. The jagged rocks the water covered haven’t gone anywhere; they can still tear the hull to pieces.
The Cardinals needed that home run because, for much of the game, they were poking holes in their own boat.
They made two errors and ran themselves out of two potential scoring opportunities. They went deeper into their bullpen because of these inefficiencies. They nearly sank themselves again.
In the fifth inning, Kolten Wong led off with a double. His hit was a looping flair into the outfield, and he took a highly risky chance trying to stretch for the extra base. By the grace of an inaccurate throw, he survived. Wong has straddled the line between “aggressive” and “foolhardy” like a man wrestling an alligator this year. He won the exchange on the double, but was quickly picked off second base by the catcher with the pitcher at the plate; eaten after Carlos Martinez failed to get a bunt down.
It marks the second time in three days he’s been picked off second base. As of that moment, he had been picked off more times by himself than 20 entire teams this season. The Cardinals have been picked off an MLB-leading four times in 2017.
“Guys are putting pressure on themselves and I think it’s starting to spill over into every area of our game,” Matt Carpenter said Thursday. “Guys are trying to make plays happen because they’re trying to fill in for another area. Defense makes an error and then everybody is like, ‘Oh, I have to take this extra base,’ and then something happens. Or, ‘I’ve got to get this big hit.’ You’re seeing guys trying to make something happen instead of letting the game come to them.”
“We’re talking about guys who want to balance that aggressiveness with smart play,” Mike Matheny added. “Sometimes, it’s easier than others.”
It should probably be easier than this.
Wong did aggressively stretch a double into a triple to lead off the eleventh, but he may not have had to had that fifth inning not been snuffed out so quickly.
An inning after Wong got caught, Martinez tried to pick Jose Bautista off second base, but no one was covering. The throw went into center field, Bautista went to third, and Russell Martin, who was on first, went to second base.
Both later scored.
It was error number 21 on the season for St. Louis, which will move them to dead last in that category if the two teams worse than them played clean baseball Thursday.
Grichuk later had a pinch-hit RBI single, but ran into an out at second base so enthusiastically he looked like a kamikaze pilot.
These are the mistakes of players acutely aware of prior mishaps. These are reckless plays, somewhat a product of the compounding effect of inexplicable gaffes and the lack of any apparent solution.
Management can be blamed for failing to deliver a verbal commitment to improve the defense. Coaching can be blamed for the on-field product, because that is what coaching is responsible for. But at a certain point, what is left to try? There are no fixes lower in the system. Major leaguers aren’t going to run laps for booting a ball.
Extra work before games and private instruction is useful only to a point, because these mistakes are more a product of psychology than the physical actions themselves.
While the Cardinals created the “quality control” position precisely to avoid this kind of play, there isn’t a manual for this. There’s no playbook for handling major league players who have psyched themselves out of being able to handle the fundamentals of baseball.
The more it becomes a targeted focus, the more the players think about it in the field. The more athletes think, the less they rely on the rote precision they’ve spent their whole lives cultivating. At at a certain point, focus tips into fixation.
“The problem is when guys become afraid of making a mistake, whether it’s on the bases or whether it’s in the field,” Matheny said. “ We want them to use their instincts.”
The Cardinals are doing their best to keep the faith. The reassurances are there. They believe in the players, they believe in the talent. But each time the belief is not rewarded, it grows harder to reiterate with conviction.
“Whether we play good defense or not is up to us. We know what we’re capable of. but ‘expectations’ and ‘capable,’ those are words. You’ve got to find a way to make it happen,” Carpenter said.
That is a problem offense can temporarily alleviate. It is not a problem it can erase. If the Cardinals do not find an approach that works soon, all the home run heroics in the world won't save them; evidenced by their postseason absence in 2016.
A rising tide lifts all ships, but they must still be seaworthy when the waters recede.