'That shows up': Cards can't capitalize

August 22nd, 2021

ST. LOUIS -- Busch Stadium’s 30,205 rose to their feet on Saturday night in cautious optimism. Their Cardinals had the bases loaded with no outs, an inning removed from the home team taking the lead but a half-inning removed from them relinquishing it.

Tyler O’Neill’s sacrifice fly made it a one-run deficit and increased the decibels just a tad; some thought it was a homer, others were just happy to see some fight. Then Yadier Molina and Lars Nootbaar struck out in succession. Another potential rally against the last-place Pirates had fallen by the wayside, and with it, a chance to keep pace and build momentum.

That was the story for the second straight night in St. Louis, the Cardinals falling 5-4 to Pittsburgh for their fourth loss in five games this week. Each defeat has come after the club rattled off a six-game win streak on the road upon returning home on Tuesday, fully entrenching themselves back into the chase for the second NL Wild Card spot.

Instead, a 4 1/2-game deficit to the Reds, lingering questions and opportunities not turned; St. Louis has scored four runs on 20 hits through two games against the Pirates, leading for less than 20 collective minutes.

On Friday, they became the first team in MLB this season to knock off 10 hits in a game and lose. On Saturday, they equated that number and scored four times. It seemed to be enough, until Génesis Cabrera stumbled for the first time in 15 appearances.

"We just couldn't get the proverbial big hit, and we've also cost ourselves in a couple situations the last two nights,” said manager Mike Shildt. “That shows up."

Why might that be so?

“Combination of things,” Shildt said. “They’re making some pitches and making some plays. … In the last few nights we haven't been as consistent with [runners in scoring position], and it shows up in close games.”

The falter was enough to wash away a productive night for J.A. Happ, who was in line to pick up his third win as a Cardinal in just his fourth try after the club’s sixth-inning rally. The 38-year-old lefty acquired at the Trade Deadline owns a 1.99 ERA in 22 2/3 innings since joining St. Louis. Four of his five earned runs this season have been solo homers, including a pair on Friday.

That boasts confidence, but also highlights a source of improvement.

“They say solo shots won't kill you, but you'd like to keep them in the park if you can,” Happ said. “Better than a three-run shot, for sure.”

Happ, just two starts removed from one-hitting the Pirates over six innings, has seen his season ERA deflate on the year from 6.77 to 5.88.

“I'm not sure how to pinpoint it, but I feel comfortable with this group,” Happ said. “Obviously, throwing to these guys behind the plate, I'm trying to trust in them a little bit, and the defense behind it, too. It's been great. Add those things up and it's been pretty good.”

Confidence has been steadfast in Happ, and that was wholly more true for the first arm that followed him. Unfortunately for Cabrera, his scoreless streak of 15 1/3 frames ended with Ke’Bryan Hayes’ two-run single in the seventh, after a fielding error from Nootbaar put two runners in scoring position. That streak was tied for the fifth-longest in the NL entering Saturday; Cabrera has done his part for the Cardinals’ recent stretch of winning.

“I can't hang it on him,” Shildt said. “A couple good at-bats against him and didn’t make a play. … He's been outstanding, he’s been as good as anybody in this league, especially in the last couple months, so no, we’re not hanging it on Cabby. That’s our guy.”

But even the club’s most steadfast pillars have slipped two games into a series with last-place Pittsburgh. Now the Cardinals must look to avoid their first sweep to the Pirates at home since May 27-29, 1991.