NEW YORK -- Just before the Cardinals began their 127th season in the National League, the club gained clarity on how it would finish games. Then the season commenced, and the plan stalled.
So much of St. Louis' success in 2018 hinges on the right arm of Carlos Martinez. That truth was hammered home Thursday in the Cardinals' 9-4 Opening Day loss to the Mets at Citi Field. Homers by Yadier Molina and Jose Martinez weren't enough on a tough day for Cardinals pitchers.
"It was a battle today, for him and for us," Molina said.
St. Louis' ace was not sharp in his season debut. Martinez hit the first batter he faced, then walked six more. Cardinals pitchers walked nine in total, and coupled with Jose Martinez's first-inning throwing error, allowed a dozen free bases over eight defensive frames. The result was a lopsided loss in a game in which Cardinals batters homered twice and scored four times against Noah Syndergaard.
"Especially with Martinez, he pitches off emotion a little bit," Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo said. "It's something that our team really has to focus on because we're looking to drive the ball and pass the baton along. So you've got to get him in the zone."
Doing so was a struggle for Martinez from the jump. Fighting inconsistencies in his mechanics, Martinez threw 18 pitches in the first inning and needed 48 to get through two. He lasted 4 1/3 innings, dancing out of multiple jams before Adrian Gonzalez's RBI double broke a 3-3 tie in the fifth. Five of the next six batters reached against relievers Matt Bowman and Brett Cecil, culminating in a five-run frame that ultimately decided the game.
"With Carlos, he's as talented as it gets," Mets right fielder Jay Bruce said. "But I think, as you guys saw, the wheels can start falling off just a little bit sometimes. You've almost got to let it happen in a lot of ways, stick to your approach and capitalize on his mistakes."
Twice the Cardinals erased small deficits against Syndergaard, who struck out 10 in his first win since last April. Molina celebrated his 14th consecutive Opening Day start by pulling a two-run blast off the foul pole in the second, and Jose Martinez's RBI single scored Matt Carpenter to tie the game in the fourth. Jose Martinez homered in the sixth off Syndergaard and finished the day 3-for-4. Cardinals hitters outside of Martinez and Molina managed two hits, and Mets pitchers struck out 15.
"I was just trying to keep it simple," Jose Martinez said. "He throws like 120 mph."
Since his debut in 2015, the fireballing Syndergaard has set the sport's benchmark in terms of starting pitcher power, in that phrase's broadest terms. So it was strange to see another pitcher light up the radar gun brighter than Syndergaard in a game in which he pitched. But Cardinals rookie righty Jordan Hicks did.
With his parents Jason and Jennifer in the stands, the 21-year-old Hicks breezed through a scoreless one-inning MLB debut. Hicks thrice broke triple-digits with his fastball, topping out at 100.9 mph, per Statcast™, and rendering Syndergaard's fastest pitch -- a 99.4 mph four-seamer -- just the game's seventh hardest.
"I took everything in before I got on the mound, tried to absorb the moment before I got on the mound," Hicks said. "Then I was trying to attack."
Whether Hicks remains with the Major League club remains to be seen after the Cardinals reached an agreement -- pending a physical -- with All-Star closer Greg Holland prior to first pitch. But their motivations for signing Holland were the same as they were for accelerating Hicks -- to clear up a cloudy bullpen picture. The possibility of adding Holland was the talk of the Cardinals' morning. His presence will prove important.
But more important still is Martinez, the club's ace and only pitcher projected to scratch 200 innings. With new pitching coach Mike Maddux in the fold, club officials hope Martinez can graduate into the game's next level of pitchers.
"We've had multiple conversations about what we can do to slow him down," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "Any little adjustment could possibly take you out of rhythm. What are those cues? What are those key things to get you back there? When he gets it right, it's really fun to watch."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Batting around: Gonzalez's first hit as a Met, a line-drive double down the right-field line, gave them their third and final lead of the game. It also sparked a five-run rally for the Mets, who sent 10 men to the plate in the inning. After Syndergaard bunted from the eight hole, Amed Rosario lined a two-run single to left. Nimmo, Yoenis Cespedes and Bruce all followed with singles, the latter two driving in additional runs.
Met killer: Making his 14th consecutive Opening Day start behind the plate, Molina cranked a two-run homer off the left-field foul pole in the second inning, giving the Cardinals their only advantage against Syndergaard. Molina set the Cardinals franchise mark for consecutive Opening Day starts at a single position -- passing Lou Brock, who started in left field for 13 straight seasons from 1967-79 -- catching every opener since his first full season in 2005. More >
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Molina's 14th consecutive Opening Days starts behind the plate are tied for second all-time, behind only Ray Schalk, who made 15 straight for the White Sox from 1913-27. Molina trailed only Stan Musial (18) and Brock (15) in Cardinals history for consecutive Opening Day starts at any position.
Kevin Plawecki's third-inning double clocked in at 111.6 mph, according to Statcast™, making it his hardest-hit ball since 2015. The Mets are using Plawecki and Travis d'Arnaud in a timeshare this season, seeking production out of both catchers.
Cardinals: The Cardinals will enjoy an off-day in New York before continuing their Opening Series against the Mets in a 12:10 p.m. CT tilt on Saturday. Pushed up to the No. 2 spot in the rotation, Michael Wacha makes his first start of 2018.