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Cardinals struggle for offense vs. SF rookie

MLB.com @JoeTrezz

SAN FRANCISCO -- Prior to the Cardinals' 3-2 loss to the Giants on Friday night, Mike Matheny explained with words a philosophical change that, recently, has been plain to see in his lineup cards.

It is with the club's new "defense initiative" in mind that Harrison Bader continues to start over Dexter Fowler in right field, why Kolten Wong remains the primary second baseman, and why Jose Martinez, the club's No.3 hitter until earlier this week, watched for much of the second straight night from the bench. With shortstop Paul DeJong back from injury, the Cardinals hope the "stability" of their steadiest defensive alignment leads to tighter, cleaner games, and "then hope we get contributions offensively," Matheny said.

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Prior to the Cardinals' 3-2 loss to the Giants on Friday night, Mike Matheny explained with words a philosophical change that, recently, has been plain to see in his lineup cards.

It is with the club's new "defense initiative" in mind that Harrison Bader continues to start over Dexter Fowler in right field, why Kolten Wong remains the primary second baseman, and why Jose Martinez, the club's No.3 hitter until earlier this week, watched for much of the second straight night from the bench. With shortstop Paul DeJong back from injury, the Cardinals hope the "stability" of their steadiest defensive alignment leads to tighter, cleaner games, and "then hope we get contributions offensively," Matheny said.

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The first two games of this four-game set at AT&T Park have showed the pros and cons of such an approach. Thursday they bulldozed their way to an 11-run output absent Martinez, and its limitations faded into the background. On Friday, those limitations were more apparent.

Without Martinez in the fold for a second straight game, the Cardinals were held to five hits by rookie righty Dereck Rodriguez. Their two biggest came from Wong, whose RBI double gave the Cardinals a lead in the second and RBI triple tied the game in the seventh. But that was all St. Louis mustered in support of John Gant, and it only set up Andrew McCutchen's game-winning single off John Brebbia a half inning later.

Video: STL@SF: McCutchen hits go-ahead RBI single in the 7th

"The offense was going last night," Matheny said. "That's baseball. Some nights they're going to shut you down, and we have to figure out ways how to manufacture."

If nothing else, Friday's loss served as a blueprint for the game St. Louis wants to play even when that doesn't happen. The Major League leader in team errors did not commit one behind Gant, who gave them ample opportunity (seven groundouts) in his second quality start (in three tries) in place of Michael Wacha. They received contributions from Wong and Jedd Gyorko -- both of whom struggled in part-time roles, but who have responded to the added playing time by heating up at the plate.

Wong's big night pushed his batting average beyond .200 for the first time this season; he's hitting .353 this month. Gyorko is batting .409 with five extra base hits in July.

"But it's not all about offense," Wong said. "We're keeping these games tight, close, where you can come back."

Video: STL@SF: Wong opens scoring with a 2-out RBI double

On this night, three Giants relievers ensured the Cardinals did not. St. Louis never threatened after McCutchen's go-ahead single in the seventh, which Brebbia allowed in part because Jordan Hicks was unavailable. Reyes Moronta, Tony Watson and Will Smith then combined to retire the final seven Cardinals hitters in order, forcing the Cardinals to search for silver linings while considering how Martinez (their best bat) and Fowler (their highest-paid one) fit into their new plan.

"We're still figuring that out," Matheny said.

Video: STL@SF: Matheny on offense in 3-2 loss to the Giants

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
In a play that felt pedestrian at the time but loomed large by the end, the Cardinals squandered a scoring chance in the second after Gyorko tripled to the right-center-field gap. With one out and the infield in, he broke on contact when DeJong bounced a Rodriguez sinker to shortstop. Brandon Crawford threw Gyorko out at the plate easily. DeJong scored on Wong's double a batter later, but the Cardinals exited the frame with just one run, and lost by one.

Video: STL@SF: Crawford throws out Gyorko at home plate

SOUND SMART
A trend has developed over the course of Gant's six starts: Dominant two times through the lineup, Gant's effectiveness wavers a third time through. For him, the dropoff occurs starkly in the sixth inning, where Gant's ERA climbs from 3.00 to 12.00. The trend continued Friday, when Gant allowed a go-ahead solo homer to Pablo Sandoval in the sixth, after holding the Giants to one run on four hits over the first five frames.

Video: STL@SF: Sandoval drills opposite-field solo home run

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
DeJong reported no pain after returning to the Cardinals lineup following seven weeks on the disabled list. He singled in three at-bats and made three defensive plays in his first game action since May 17, when DeJong required surgery to repair a broken left hand. DeJong wore protective padding atop his left batting glove Friday to prevent future fractures and said he will continue to do so.

"I was kind of anxious before the game, because I've been waiting for this moment for a while," DeJong said. "But once I got out there, I felt comfortable with everybody out there, and I felt like I was locked in like normal."

Video: STL@SF: DeJong singles up middle in return from DL

HE SAID IT
"Let's play a cleaner defensive game. And then hope that we get contributions offensively. Let's figure out ways to make sure we're catching the ball to help reinforce the great starts that we've been getting." -- Matheny

Video: STL@SF: Gyorko recovers to make a barehanded play

UP NEXT
Now two strong starts removed from a bizarrely ineffective stretch following his three-week DL stint, Carlos Martinez takes the mound Saturday looking to build on that momentum. Martinez (5-4, 3.20 ERA) has held opponents to two runs over six innings his last two times out, winning both games. He'll be opposed by right-hander Jeff Samardzija (1-4, 6.56) as this series continues at 3:05 pm CT from AT&T Park.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Paul DeJong, John Gant, Joey Wong