Leading up to the game, there was plenty of promise for what Tuesday night could bring. Yadier Molina and Carlos Martinez were set to return from the DL. Preston Guilmet, who had been closing out games for Memphis, finally got his call for another shot in The Show.
But this was no fairytale.
Martinez was rusty, and in glancing at Guilmet’s previous big-league stats (8.22 ERA in 19 career games), I imagine his Cardinals debut Tuesday resembled many of his other MLB outings. Austin Gomber also struggled out of the bullpen, giving up a couple runs in the sixth as the Cardinals fell to the Marlins 7-4.
By the halfway mark of the game, Martinez had already been pulled after 75 pitches, his poor command contributing five of the nine walks allotted by Cardinal pitching on the night. Guilmet, who relieved him to begin the fifth, had already been knocked for three earned runs, including a home run by Brian Anderson.
It wasn’t going well, and yet, the Cardinals found themselves still with a prime opportunity to turn the tide in the bottom of the fifth.
Instead, they decided fundamentals were no longer very fun.
Some might argue the fundamentals drought began in the first inning when Matt Carpenter was doubled off first on a fly out to short left field, but Carpenter had to go halfway before knowing whether the ball would be caught. Even once it was, he wasn’t in a great position to see that a diving Derek Dietrich had made the play, so he hesitated, lunged toward second, and was caught trying to scamper back to first.
It didn’t look good, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. Tommy Pham’s mistake in the fifth, however, was every bit as bad as it looked. And it looked bad.
After the first three batters reached to load the bases, Pham represented the go-ahead run in a 5-2 game. Pham grounded into a fielder’s choice to plate one run, and by the time he reached third on an RBI hit by Marcell Ozuna, Pham represented the tying run.
That’s when it happened: Jose Urena picked Pham off third.
Then Molina grounded out. The Marlins escaped the jam. The threat was over.
The Cardinals’ prime opportunity to turn the game around was thwarted by the Cardinals. And Pham wasn’t in any mood to chat about it afterward, cutting his session with the media short after denying any wrongdoing on the play.
“I don’t know how that play is on me,” Pham said. “I’m the wrong guy to talk to. I’m going on contact there. Anybody knows when you’re going on contact you need to get a big lead.”
Pham’s comments seemed to imply that a heads-up from Jose Oquendo as the third baseman snuck in behind the bag would have done wonders in negating the pickoff attempt. Mike Matheny termed it a “very unique pickoff play that caught us off,” and echoed Pham’s sentiment about trying to score on contact.
Though the manager appears to have sanctioned Pham’s aggressive mindset, no amount of explanation can render being picked off at third in that spot as acceptable. It was bad baseball, and of all the blunders the Cardinals made Tuesday, this one cost them the most.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t more head-scratchers to come.
If we’re compiling a ranking, the silver medal goes to Jose Martinez in the eighth. After fielding a throw from Carpenter from across the diamond, Martinez mysteriously decided not to stretch with his foot on the bag to complete the force out of Cameron Maybin, instead rushing from the base in an apparent attempt to nab the runner going from second to third.
But Martinez never threw the ball. He merely pump faked, as J.B. Shuck had basically already reached third safely before Martinez could get rid of it.
To his credit, Martinez explained his mindset on the play and owned up the the flub that caused Carpenter to be inexplicably charged with a throwing error.
"I thought I had more of a chance at third,” Martinez said. “I thought Maybin was the better runner. It was a bad decision by me, but the intention wasn't anything, wasn't bad."
To hear Martinez own it was encouraging, but it’s worth wondering why the instinct to take the force out, the sure out—and honestly, the only possible out—didn’t kick in for the Cardinals first baseman.
Martinez had another rough go in the ninth when a throw from Yairo Munoz sailed up the base line (again, the error was charged to the thrower, this time more understandably), and Martinez had the ball go off his glove as he attempted to tag the base runner.
Piling on Martinez alone would simply not be fair, especially considering his willingness to admit a mistake. Of course, there were almost too many mistakes to count in this game.
Ozuna sailed a throw to the plate by a considerable margin in the fifth. Kolten Wong was called out on a controversial bunt that hit his bat a second time as he left the batter’s box in the sixth. Back in the third, Carlos Martinez fielded a comebacker and from his rear end, took his sweet time to lollipop it over to first. The runner was safe, prompting one of the more blunt responses you'll hear from Matheny when asked if the play bothered him.
“Yeah," he said. "That’s not… We don’t work on that. You get to your feet, make a throw.”
You get the picture. The domino effect was real Tuesday night.
“Some days it looks right and other days it’s a fight,” Matheny said. “We can fall into positive momentum, how lots of good things seem to happen because of good things. I think the same thing can happen on the other end. A slower tempo or not making plays tends to recreate itself.
“You’ve got to turn it around, but unfortunately it kept running in the same direction. You’re going to have those. Guys have been doing their work, they’re competing. Everybody knows what they need to improve on, just some days it doesn’t come as easy.”
Bad days are natural in all walks of life. But concern over poor fundamentals is not a new thing anymore in St. Louis—we've been talking about it for three years now. At what point do the Cardinals stop chalking up such woes to it being "one of those days" and begin honing in on substantive ways to enact change?
When asked how exactly the team goes about addressing when things don't look right—how they attempt to fix such weaknesses to fundamentals in the middle of a long season—Matheny didn't offer much of a glimpse into the playbook.
"Get better," he said. That's it."
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