Matz struggles in first start for the Cardinals
ST. LOUIS -- Any questions about the Cardinals’ legitimacy as a true World Series contender surround not a power-packed lineup featuring Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt and rising stars Tyler O’Neill and Dylan Carlson, but instead the questionable depth of the pitching staff behind ace Adam Wainwright.
On Sunday, with a chance to quiet those concerns and build off an early advantage provided by a torrid St. Louis offense, left-handed pitcher Steven Matz saw a strong couple of innings turn into a nightmarish result to ruin his debut in a Cardinals uniform.
When Matz surrendered nine hits and seven runs over three-plus innings and squandered an early 3-0 lead in a 9-4 loss to the Pirates, it only fueled those questions. Matz’s rough opener, combined with Miles Mikolas’ struggles a day earlier and Jack Flaherty’s lingering shoulder injury, add up to some early-season worries for the Redbirds as far as their pitching goes.
“It’s not what you want, and you want to go deep into games, so it’s frustrating to me,” Matz said of being unable to record an out in the fourth inning. “Especially when we come out hot and score three runs, you want to get the guys back in there [on offense] as quickly as possible, and I wasn’t able to do that.”
It was that kind of frustration-filled day for the Cardinals (2-1), who were without manager Oliver Marmol (flu) for a second straight day. They also saw their offense muster just two hits over the game’s final seven innings. Four Cardinals pitchers made their season debuts, but they had few answers for a Pirates squad that pounded 15 hits after being held to just two runs in the first two games.
“They were aggressive, and you could tell from pitch one they were going to go after [Matz] and not wait around,” said Skip Schumaker, who filled in for Marmol. “It felt like the inning that got away from him, a little of it was three or four first-pitch hits. You could see that they were aggressive, there were a couple of balls that were left up and a couple of good pitches were hit. It felt like their game plan right away was to be aggressive.”
Michael Chavis certainly was aggressive in hitting a 79 mph curveball from Matz for a grand slam in the third inning to wipe out St. Louis’ early 3-0 lead. Matz struck out four batters and yielded just one hit over the first two innings, but the tide turned dramatically in the third. Singles by Ben Gamel, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds set the stage for Chavis’ Statcast-projected 386-foot grand slam.
“I felt really, really good out of the gate, and it’s one of those days when you have a lot of confidence when you are feeling that good, but it was pretty frustrating to unravel there in the third,” Matz said. “I felt good, but in that third inning, I’ve got to make better pitches when it counts.”
The Cardinals were aggressive early in free agency last fall by signing Matz to a four-year, $44 million contract. Matz was tied for second in the American League in wins (14) in 2021 with the Blue Jays. A St. Louis squad that had to weather injuries to Mikolas and Flaherty and wait for Dakota Hudson to fully recover following Tommy John surgery hoped that Matz could shore up the depth behind the 40-year-old Wainwright, a 17-game winner a season ago.
However, Sunday’s debut in a Cardinals uniform ran in direct contrast to Matz’s final spring start, when he limited the Marlins to two hits over 6 2/3 innings. That left him to deal with the disappointment of flopping in his debut.
“Especially in front of a new fanbase and new teammates, you want to show them what you can do and how you can contribute to win ballgames and make it to the World Series,” Matz said. “That’s definitely in the back of my mind. I felt good and confident, and it’s just frustrating with how the outcome was.”
Matz’s inability to duplicate his success in the first two innings and subsequently struggle through the third and fourth innings meant the Cardinals wasted a second home run from Arenado and a two-hit effort from Carlson, whose hitting streak is now 10 games dating back to last season. Next time around, Matz said, it will be up to him to help the Cardinals get out of innings and make early leads stand up.
“It just comes down to executing pitches,” he said. “I feel like I was one pitch away, and I’ve got to be better next time. There was some soft contact that [third] inning, but like I have said, if those pitches were down, better things happen.”