Cards squander C-Mart's quality start

April 22nd, 2021

WASHINGTON -- Five times this season -- and four series in a row -- the Cardinals have found themselves in a rubber match, been given the chance to build some momentum heading into the ensuing set and finally start to unlock some of the consistency they’ve been longing to see. All five times, those opportunities have been squandered.

The latest iteration -- Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to the Nationals at Nationals Park -- came on the heels of a quality start. Facing off against ace Max Scherzer -- a tall task for the touch-and-go offense -- it was Martínez who threw the four fastest pitches on the afternoon, mixing in his craftiness to allow just one run, four hits and one walk across his first outing of at least six innings since July 2018.

Martínez’s day righted a trend for the Cardinals. In D.C., they received a trio of quality starts after entering the series with just one on their resume. Only one -- a 12-run outburst in support of Jack Flaherty on Monday -- resulted in a victory, though.

“It’s a really good way of looking at this trip,” said manager Mike Shildt. “Start with the positives: Three quality starts in a row. We won the first game of the series, and I would have taken our chances in the next two games if I knew we were only going to give up four runs.”

In another sense, Wednesday was also an all-too familiar sign for the Cardinals. In their eight wins so far this season, they’re averaging eight runs per game. In the 10 losses? 2.1.

Here are three takeaways from a 2-4 road trip, with seven games at Busch Stadium -- part of a 17-day gauntlet without an off-day -- next on the docket:

1) The rotation -- and Martínez -- hitting its stride
Shildt has seen Martínez pitch in a multitude of roles since he was named interim manager on July 14, 2018. Never has he seen him pitch as well as he did on Wednesday -- at least on paper.

Martínez’s six innings of one-run baseball were his longest outing since July 7, 2018, when he went seven strong against the Giants. Truth be told, despite his uneven outings so far this year, amongst the Cards only Martínez has pitched at least five frames every start.

"This is my best start of the new season,” Martínez said. “So I’ll keep going like this."

All told, the three-game set in D.C. featured as many quality starts from the Cardinals' rotation, and a 1.89 ERA.

2) Feast or famine still abound
Twice on Wednesday did the Cardinals have bases-loaded chances with their fate resting on the bat of -- one of the best bases-loaded hitters in recent history. Twice did Carpenter flounder such opportunities.

Carpenter struck out against Scherzer on four pitches in the first inning before lining out to right to end the eighth. Balls hit similarly -- 101 mph exit velocity, 26 degree launch angle -- go for hits 70% of the time.

“It's very rare when I don't have some answers,” Shildt said. “I don't have a great answer anymore for what Matt Carpenter can do.

“What do you do?” Shildt later added. “Do you sit a guy that you know is hitting the ball hard? We also recognize that people expect results out of this organization, and we expect them as well. But we also know from the course of our experiences what tends to work over a period of time. We also know we're in April.”

Though it wasn’t just Carpenter as the culprit of squandered chances on the road trip, an 0-for-4 day dropped him to .081 on the season (3-for-37). Despite the instances of hard contact, he’s struck out at a 36% clip, including twice on Wednesday.

3) Knizner making most of chances
Permit into the dirty jersey club.

Two diving plays -- one to save a run, one unheralded -- were some of the Cardinals’ lone highlights on Wednesday. The first was saving an off-balance relay throw on Alex Avila’s RBI double. One run already had scored, but a second surely wouldn’t.

The second instance was of far lesser glamor. On a slow tapper down the line by Avila, Knizner hustled to ensure it would remain foul, or else Avila likely had a base or two against the shift.

“Something kind of out of the ordinary,” Knizner laughed. “You don't see too many of those -- catchers diving around like that. But it just happened to be two plays where I needed to stretch out.”

It was only Knizner's second start of the season, playing behind the seldom restful Yadier Molina. Seems as if he has a knack for making good impressions when presented the chances.

“Just about the work on a daily basis of the mental preparations and physical preparations with it,” Shildt said. “Kizz does a very good job of that.”