Pitch imperfect: Cards starters still struggling

May 21st, 2016

ST. LOUIS -- That contagiousness of success the Cardinals starters talked about so boldly last year has yet to surface this season, one in which the club has continually had to cobble together its pitching because of so many innings left uncovered by its starters.

Carlos Martinez's start in Friday's 11-7 loss to the D-backs was the sixth in the team's last eight games to last five innings or fewer. What was supposed to be this club's strength remains, now 42 games into the season, its most pressing issue.

It may have been unrealistic to expect the Cardinals to match the 2.99 rotation ERA of 2015, but this five-man unit was nevertheless projected to be one of the league's most formidable. To this point, it hasn't been.

"The talent, we know, is there," manager Mike Matheny said. "The consistency is what we're searching for. We'll go on a run where our starting pitching carries us. We know that."

Thus far the rotation has strung together three quality starts just once all season. At this point in 2015, the rotation had a 3.17 ERA and .217 batting average against. This season? That ERA has ballooned to 4.22, and opponents are hitting .254.

As a group the starters are not covering enough innings, either. That's one reason why Matheny had to turn to infielder Ruben Tejada in the ninth inning on Friday -- his bullpen had already been asked to handle eight innings over the last two nights.

The Cardinals are on pace to make 54 starts of five innings or fewer this season. Last year they totaled 40. The 2015 rotation was also a key factor in the the team's knack for winning low-scoring games. The Cardinals earned 32 victories last season in games in which they scored three runs or fewer. They've won one such game in 2016.

"It's just a matter of finding a rhythm for the team as a whole," Martinez said when asked about the collective disappointment.

Martinez, who got off to a roaring 4-0 start, has lost his last four outings. With Friday's five-inning performance, he has combined to cover 13 1/3 innings over his last three starts. He's labored through long innings -- a 30-pitch first on Friday, a 40-pitch fifth his last time out -- and struggled with command.

Starters Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake have shown progress but are still making up for jagged season starts. Michael Wacha and Martinez, young pitchers expected to take leaps forward this season, have stalled. Wacha has allowed six runs in four innings each of his last two times out. Even Jaime Garcia, who's had the most dominant outings of the group, has had another three in which he didn't last past the fifth.

"Each one of these guys has that adjustment they need to find that puts them in that good spot," Matheny said. "The consistency is something that they're all searching for. Hopefully, they all hit it at the same time."