ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals lefty Steven Matz had pitched brilliantly Thursday afternoon, limiting the Orioles to one run on five hits while striking out seven over 6 2/3 innings. Then, one strike away from completing what would have been his final inning, Matz saw his fate decided by one overcooked curveball that spun over the plate.
Still glum and frustrated in the clubhouse after the 3-2 series-finale loss to the Orioles at Busch Stadium, Matz reluctantly concluded that the errant seventh-inning curveball -- one that Baltimore’s Anthony Bemboom drilled 370 feet for a solo home run -- is something of a microcosm of his incredibly boom-or-bust eight-year MLB career.
Want to know why Matz has a career record of 48-51 and a 3-3 mark this season, despite being someone staff ace Adam Wainwright describes as having “elite stuff” and someone catcher Andrew Knizner refers to as a “freak athlete?”
It’s because far too many defining moments have been “defined” by Matz trying to do too much, he candidly admitted.
“It’s hard for me to get over that two-out, two-strike pitch to Bemboom,” Matz said. “It’s a one-run game, two outs and two strikes, so just execute a pitch. I tried to overthrow the curveball and I just hung it. I was trying to strike him out instead of just throwing the pitch the way I had all game. That’s something we’ve been addressing, and that’s kind of what’s snagged me my whole career. I flash some good games and then I’m inconsistent. It’s about finding consistency.”
Matz’s mistake was magnified by a sputtering, equally inconsistent St. Louis offense. Entering Thursday, the Cardinals had slashed .281/.356/.453 with 18 homers and 6.2 runs per game in 17 victories. However, in 13 losses, they were hitting .185/.255/.273 with eight home runs and just 2.2 runs per game. Thursday’s loss, in which they tallied two runs on six hits with nine strikeouts, was similar to Tuesday’s series-opening loss (three runs on seven hits and 12 strikeouts) and was nothing like Wednesday’s win (10 runs on 11 hits and six K’s).
“Today was a great outing for Matz,” said Knizer, who caught Matz’s 101 pitches. “You pitch into the seventh inning and you give up a couple of runs -- you’re supposed to win that game. If starting pitching can get us into the seventh with less than three runs, that’s all we can ask for. We’ve got to score runs.”
Much like Matz trying to do too much with his seventh-inning curveball, struggling left fielder Tyler O’Neill got caught being overly aggressive in the final play of the game. Trying to get himself in scoring position on a looper over second, O’Neill got doubled off to end the game after Baltimore shortstop Jorge Mateo ran down a popup in shallow center. O’Neill -- who lost his salary arbitration case earlier in the week and had struggled through a 1-for-4 day, stranding four runners on base -- admitted afterward that he erred in judgment.
“I took a chance; I rolled the dice,” admitted O’Neill, whose average dipped to .200. “Mateo has good speed and good range, and he was able to run it down. I was overaggressive, so that can't happen."
Matz admitted that hanging curveballs in critical junctures can’t happen if he is going to live up to the four-year, $44 million free-agent contract the Cardinals gave him in the offseason. St. Louis took a gamble on Matz following a career-best 14-7 record with Toronto in 2021. What the Cards didn’t account for was that Matz had gone 0-5 in 2020, a rocky 11-10 in ’19 and a combined 7-18 in the previous two seasons. Finding any sort of consistency has been a struggle for a talented lefty who boasts a plus fastball, a devastating changeup and an emerging slider/cutter.
This first season in St. Louis has been much like Matz’s topsy-turvy career. There has been some good (5 2/3 innings of scoreless ball against Milwaukee; one-run pitching versus Cincinnati; and six scoreless innings against Kansas City) and plenty of bad (seven runs against the Pirates; four runs allowed to the Mets; and eight runs yielded to the Giants). Manager Oliver Marmol is trying to help the southpaw solve his consistency issues.
“You have a really good pitcher with a good work ethic who is very competitive, but he still has a lot of room for growth,” Marmol said. “He’s relied on his talent, and there’s a lot of room for him to understand what makes him good and understand how to improve.”
Matz understood completely what sabotaged his otherwise strong outing on Thursday, and he hopes to improve it moving forward.
“Like today, trying to do too much instead of trusting my stuff that had been there all game,” he said. “I tried to throw my best curveball on my last pitch of the game and that [homer] happened. Trusting my stuff is a big part of that.”