Listless Cardinals lose again after Angels flatten Matz in the first inning

Los Angeles Angels' Taylor Ward, left, rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run off...
Los Angeles Angels' Taylor Ward, left, rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run off St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Steven Matz (32) during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 2, 2023, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: May. 3, 2023 at 1:59 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - In a start that reasonably should have been viewed as a crossroads outing for struggling Cardinals starter Steven Matz, the veteran left-hander resembled roadkill in the first inning.

Matz allowed a walk and two singles to put traffic on the bases before outfielder Taylor Ward flattened him with a three-run blast. Though those four first-inning runs were all Matz permitted across five innings of work, the opening frame landed the Cardinals in a road-side ditch out of which they couldn’t pull themselves on Tuesday at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals fell to the Angels, 5-1.

For as much as the Cardinals would like to be encouraged by Matz eventually settling in for a five-inning outing, their place in the NL Central standings at present leaves no room for moral victories.

“We’ve got to get to the point where you don’t have to get punched in the face to get to that aggressiveness where you’re getting after it and making pitches,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said of Matz’s sluggish opening act Tuesday. “It looked like he was trying to be too fine early on and then started attacking a little bit more.”

For as troubling as the trends of Matz’s season have been, there’s a case to be made that his first-inning struggles weren’t even the most glaring issue of the night for the Cardinals.

When Matz set an 85-mph frisbee on a tee in the top of the first, Ward turned on the middle-in changeup to break the game open before the first Cardinal batter stepped to the plate. But when the St. Louis lineup eventually did get its chance to strike back, it took the offense until the fifth inning to record its first hit against Los Angeles starter Patrick Sandoval.

It’s as though the Cardinal offense internalized the lack of intensity that led to a 4-0 deficit and responded in kind at the plate.

“Yeah, naturally it does,” Marmol admitted when asked if an early deficit can carry over to a team’s performance at the plate—particularly on the heels of the 2-8 road trip the Cardinals had just endured prior to Tuesday’s game.

“We have a clubhouse full of competitors who are going to try like heck not to allow that to affect them, but yeah, when you’re trying to set the tone and start something new, it’s tough when you’re immediately down 4-0.”

Tyler O’Neill broke up the no-hitter with a groundball through the left field of the infield. He came around to score on an Andrew Knizner groundout later in the inning. But the Cardinals didn’t muster another run in the contest.

St. Louis had an opportunity to climb back into the game with two outs in the fifth when the lineup turned over to Tommy Edman. With runners at the corners, he represented the tying run. And against a lefty pitcher, it seemed as good of a chance as any for the Cardinals to break through. It didn’t happen.

After a Paul Goldschmidt double and a Willson Contreras walk provided another scoring threat in the sixth, Nolan Arenado bounced into a 6-4-3 double play on the first pitch he saw from Chris Devenski. The Los Angeles reliever recorded all three outs in the inning on just five pitches.

Though Arenado did pull a line drive with authority in one at-bat Tuesday, the ball found Ward’s glove in left to ensure another hitless night for the Cardinals’ third baseman. Arenado has watched his batting average dip to .233 amid a current 2-for-28 stretch since the start of last week’s series in San Francisco.

For an offense that was billed all spring as one that would be powerful and productive, those alliterative adjectives have not shown up in the Cardinals’ swings at the plate lately. St. Louis hitters often seem like they’re caught in between, unable or unwilling to fully commit to unloading on the type of vicious cut required to do damage to a baseball.

So there’s inconsistency at the plate for the Cardinals and there are natural questions on the pitching side. Should Matz draw another start before the team pivots to lefty prospect Matthew Liberatore, who has a sub-3.00 ERA on the year with Triple-A Memphis?

Matz gets credit for tossing four scoreless innings following his hiccup in the first on Tuesday. But the manager openly acknowledged that the hiccup was so impactful that it took his hitters out of their element offensively. That it sapped the energy from the team in game one of an important homestand. That, essentially, Tuesday was a lost cause before the Cardinals ever came to bat.

Can the Cardinals afford to be compelled by the mirage of Matz’s final four innings by giving him another turn in the rotation? Or, for a team that has now lost two-thirds of its games this season, does there come a point where contract status can no longer dictate the level of urgency the club can afford to take with uncomfortable roster decisions?

Matz is in only his second year of a four-year, $44 million deal, but the 2023 Cardinals aren’t in much of a position to worry about how demoting him might impact the 2024 pitching rotation.

His ERA ballooned to 6.39 in Tuesday’s loss. The Cardinals are 0-6 in games started by Matz this season. The Cardinals haven’t won a series-opening game all season. Eventually, something’s got to give.

“No one’s feeling sorry for us right now, okay?” Marmol said. “The league loves watching us fail because we’re good every year. So there’s not a team out there that’s sitting back and feeling sorry for us. No one is going to hand us anything.”

April’s woes could be chalked up to bad bounces, bad luck, bad timing for a roster that would eventually prove its mettle. But as the team sinks to a full 10 games below .500 following its first game in May, it’s starting to seem from the outside as though the Cardinals’ inexplicably nightmarish start to 2023 isn’t going to magically fix itself.

The manager, though, remains convicted that his group will make it happen.

“We’re just going to have to dig deep and prove everybody wrong,” Marmol said. “And we’re up for the task.”