PITTSBURGH -- When the Cardinals got off to the franchise’s worst start in 50 years and then hit what they presumed to be rock bottom at 10-24, they often could definitively point fingers at shaky starting pitching, spotty hitting or a bullpen that too often sprung leaks in tight games as the root causes.
However, after seeing their brief May turnaround blunted by a jarring three-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates, many Cardinals staffers and players explained that the numbness felt on Sunday offered sensations that were diametrically different than before.
Whereas the Cardinals often could blame themselves for their early season shortcomings, their fate was determined on Sunday in a 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh at PNC Park by them simply losing to a Pirates team that soundly outplayed them all weekend.
“No, not even [expletive] close,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said when asked if another downturn reminded him of April when the team stumbled badly out of the gates to start the season. “No, not close. It doesn’t feel that way at all. In April, we handed over a lot of games in a lot of different ways. Pittsburgh beat us three straight days.
“At the end of the day, [St. Louis starting pitcher Miles] Mikolas left one up for [Ji Hwan] Bae, and that’s all they got, and we couldn’t string anything together. That feels very different than April.”
Regardless of the feeling, the reality is that the Cardinals left Pittsburgh on Sunday as owners of the National League’s worst record at 25-35, 10 games below .500 and seven games back of the suddenly surging Pirates. The Cardinals came to Pittsburgh following a rare two-day break in the schedule and looking to use the three-game series to make up ground on the teams ahead of them in the NL Central. Instead, they left as losers of six of their past eight games and losers of five of seven meetings against the Pirates this season.
Tommy Edman, who had a couple of the bright spots on Sunday with his leadoff double and his sprinting catch at the warning track, said disappointment is the overwhelming emotion in the Cards clubhouse these days.
“We’re definitely not playing up to our potential,” said Edman, who was stranded at third in the first inning after registering one of the Cardinals' two extra-base hits of the day. “Everybody knows we have a ton of talent in this room, and it’s definitely frustrating. But we’ve just got to keep working at it and hope things turn around.”
Mikolas had worked in the role of stopper the previous two outings and came into the game riding a 16-inning scoreless streak. The Cardinals had won Mikolas’ previous five starts, but they couldn’t muster enough offense to overcome the two-run first-inning he suffered Sunday. A St. Louis squad that tore through the Cubs, Red Sox, Brewers and Dodgers with 10 wins in 13 games, has somehow scored just 19 runs in its past eight games.
The Cardinals lost on Sunday to 43-year-old Pirates lefty Rich Hill, making him the oldest pitcher to beat St. Louis since Randy Johnson (45 years, 293 days) did on June 30, 2009. Because of that, they find themselves in an even deeper hole in the NL Central.
“We’ve got a lot of ground to make up,” said Mikolas, who allowed just two earned runs despite surrendering 10 hits over five innings. “We were better last month than the first month, and it’s still early in June. We still have a lot of season left, and we can slowly make up ground, but it’s definitely going to be a dogfight to the end of the year, so long as no one else distances themselves.
"Everyone is still pretty tight here [in the division]. It’s surprising to be 10 games under .500 and only 7[.5] games back. We have fewer games in the division, so it's going to make it tougher to make it up, and it makes a series like this even more important.”
Mikolas said he doesn’t view a roster with Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt and plenty of capable pitchers as a last-place squad, but that’s the reality the Cards must face.
“We’ve got a pretty good staff, MVPs and Gold Glovers, but we’re losing a lot of games by one run,” Mikolas said. “Once we right the ship, we just hope we’re not too far back. We’d hate to have to rely on another 17-game winning streak [like in 2021] to get into the playoffs, but that’s always a possibility with players this caliber.
“For the people out there getting upset, it’s understandable, but I wouldn’t count us out,” Mikolas added. “This isn’t the start we wanted, but we have veterans and young guys starting to step up. It’s time to see who wants it, be a leader and get the job done.”