Punched in the mouth for the first time this season, Cardinals don’t offer much of a response in Sunday’s loss to Pirates

What had appeared to be another lazy win incoming over a bad Pittsburgh team had suddenly shifted in a couple of key early moments.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Ben Gamel, right, scores past St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina...
Pittsburgh Pirates' Ben Gamel, right, scores past St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina during the eighth inning of a baseball game Sunday, April 10, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: Apr. 10, 2022 at 10:30 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Things started out so well for the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium that when Pirates first baseman Michael Chavis tagged St. Louis starter Steven Matz for a grand slam in the third inning, it took a moment to mentally settle into the new reality of what this game had become. What had appeared to be another lazy win incoming over a bad Pittsburgh team had suddenly shifted.

Given the Cardinals’ dominance to that point in the game--and to that point in the season-opening series--it almost didn’t feel mathematically possible for Chavis’ big swing to have swung the score in favor of the Buccos. Nevertheless, the scoreboard displayed 4-3 Pirates, as the Redbirds had been punched in the mouth for the first time on the young season.

The response for St. Louis was to mostly stay down on the mat as the Cardinals seemed to lack sharpness on the mound, at the plate and in the field for the rest of the afternoon. They suffered their first loss of the season in the game, as the Pirates won, 9-4.

It’s not that the Cardinals necessarily looked lifeless at the plate, as we have seen at times for stretches of recent seasons in St. Louis. Several balls were put in play with authority by Cardinals hitters, but the breaks seemed to go Pittsburgh’s way with frequency.

Nolan Arenado helped build a 3-0 early lead for the Cardinals when he drilled a line drive into the left-field stands in the first inning. The two-run shot padded the advantage after Tyler O’Neill had driven in Dylan Carlson with a sacrifice fly.

The vibes were good, the Cardinals appeared comfortable and poised for their third scoring onslaught in a row. But after a Paul Goldschmidt double play ended a scoring threat in the second inning, a dry spell ensued as the Cardinals went all the way until a Harrison Bader double in the seventh without a base hit.

The tone shift in the game was cemented by Matz’s unraveling on the mound in the third. Pittsburgh scored five runs that inning, including the Chavis grand slam, before adding two more in the fourth to chase Matz from the game before he could record an out in that inning. His struggles seemed to suck the air out of the offense, as the Cardinals inexplicably entered into a sluggish place at the plate for several innings at that point.

“The first inning for us was really good,” Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker said. Schumaker filled in for manager Oli Marmol for a second straight game as Marmol recovers from the flu. “It felt like we were going to keep going and adding runs. It kind of stalled a little bit in the middle innings and we just couldn’t add on.”

As for Matz, it wasn’t the Cardinals debut he had envisioned. The notion of a death by a thousand paper cuts was relevant Sunday as seven of the nine hits Matz permitted were singles. The knockout blow by Chavis showed just how dangerous living on the edge can be. Matz walked the lead-off batter in the fourth inning, which helped lead to his eventual departure from the game later that inning.

“I felt really, really good out of the gate,” Matz said. “It was one of those days when you have a lot of confidence when you feel that good coming out. It was pretty frustrating there to kind of unravel in the third.”

Matz’s day ended with seven earned runs in three-plus innings pitched. He struck out five batters, a sign that his stuff was capable of fooling or freezing batters as he successfully did on multiple backward Ks on the day. But Matz wasn’t able to dig himself out of the trouble that ambushed him in the third inning. That’s something to monitor for his outings moving forward as the Cardinals deal with workload-related questions for the latter part of their rotation.

With Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson coming off injuries last season--and Jordan Hicks doing the same as a pitcher who has never been a starter at the MLB level--St. Louis needs Matz to dig deep to find ways to sustain prolonged, quality outings throughout the summer.

“It’s not what you want to do,” Matz said of his inability to traverse deep into Sunday’s start. “You want to go deep into games. So it’s really frustrating to me today, especially when you come out hot and score three runs right off the bat. You want to get the guys back in there as quickly as possible. And I wasn’t able to do that today. It’s a stepping stone. We’ll address the things we need to address and we’ll build off some of the good things I did today.”