Late-inning magic doesn't erase lingering issues for Cardinals -

Late-inning magic doesn't erase lingering issues for Cardinals

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ST. LOUIS (BaseballStL) -

The Cardinals took a hit to their pitching rotation Thursday with the news that Alex Reyes was heading back to the disabled list—and that he’d likely be there for a while. If there’s any silver lining to the situation, it’s that St. Louis might have the depth in the rotation to withstand another prolonged absence for Reyes.

Though the additional injury breeds the disturbing thought, no matter how faint, that this trend could ultimately rob the top prospect of his reaching the full height of his potential, it isn’t necessarily a dagger to the unit in 2018—the rotation has gotten along fine without him, ranking 2nd in the NL in starters’ ERA this season.

More likely to hinder the Cardinals shot at returning to the postseason? The offense. The bullpen. Or on any given day, some combination of the two.

Entering Thursday, St. Louis was 11th in the NL in runs scored, falling well short of expectations for the lineup after the facelift it received in the offseason. The reasons for the disappointing start for the Cardinal bats vary. Marcell Ozuna has not lived up to the billing as clean-up hitter, while Matt Carpenter has only recently turned the corner. Elsewhere, injuries to Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong have the lineup looking more feeble on paper—and it has translated to the field.

That’s why the bottom of the first inning Thursday felt so critical at the time. The Cardinals jumped on Pirates starter Trevor Williams right away, with six men reaching base in the frame. It included a bases-loaded single by Dexter Fowler to plate a pair, then featured the kind of second wave that has seemed so rare of late—a Yairo Munoz double down the line doubled the St. Louis scoring output for the inning.

Even despite Tommy Pham inexplicably popping up a bunt for an out in the inning, the Cardinals had a 4-0 advantage on Williams before he had a chance to get comfortable. He was on the ropes before the night really began, and that’s not something the Cardinals have been able to say often this season: before Thursday’s outburst, the Cardinals had averaged just 0.40 runs per first inning this season, 28th in MLB.

The early onslaught was a welcomed sign, but the crux is found in what came after: it didn’t amount to a sunken battleship for the opposing starter. Williams settled in and set down the Cardinals without allowing another run until Greg Garcia punched an RBI single to center in the fifth. With their early success against Williams, the Cardinals had the chance to dig deeper into the Pittsburgh bullpen in the opener of a four-game series, but instead allowed Williams to float through a standard five-inning start.

"You've thrown that many hits together, it's just timing of whether you get the right one at the right time,'" Mike Matheny said. "But we had some good approaches today. I think guys are taking nice steps in the right direction offensively."

The Pirates would claw their way back into a game in which the Cardinals had a head-start. Rather than instilling the tone after jumping out to a 4-0 lead, the Cardinals let the Pirates hang around—and pass them by. It took a miraculous bottom of the ninth for the Cardinals to escape Busch Stadium with the win, and while that provided fans with perhaps the most memorable ending to a game all year, there were plenty of simpler ways to skin that cat.

Jack Flaherty didn’t have his best stuff, and that meant a heavier reliance on the Cardinal bullpen—a recipe which again proved to be dangerous. The Cardinals' 4.34 ERA from their relievers ranks 13th of 15 in the NL. It hasn't been pretty.

To make matters worse, even the typically trustworthy relievers struggled Thursday. Jordan Hicks used all the magic in his hat to clean up John Brebbia's mess in the seventh. He had nothing left for the eighth, and when Matheny called on Bud Norris to steady the ship, he didn't have much, either. He gave up a three-run bomb.

The bad bullpen is a problem the Cardinals will have to address some way or another—perhaps an infusion of young arms like Dakota Hudson and Ryan Helsley could be on the way before long. Still, it’s worth wondering if the offense, too, didn’t make things harder than necessary by failing to pile on Williams when he was ripe for the picking.

"Any time you get a chance to pour it on, you want to take advantage of that," Harrison Bader said. "So maybe there was a little sense of frustration, but at the end of the day, we're out there doing our best, we're sticking with our plan. It didn't work in those middle innings, but you've got to take positives from it. It worked early in the game and obviously, ultimately, in the end of the game. It's about how you bounce back from things like that, and I think we did a good job of that."

There's no doubt: the comeback and walk-off earned them plenty of style points Thursday, but going forward, the Cardinals would be well-served to seek more conventional methods for putting these kinds of games away.

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