PITTSBURGH -- In a season where little has unfolded as the organization planned, the Cardinals found themselves once again stung by the struggles of two relievers who, after opening the season in critical late-inning roles, will close it with plenty of built-up frustration.
In a game the Cardinals needed to win in order to keep pace in the National League Central and Wild Card races, the club watched a tie game unravel under the watch of Seunghwan Oh and Brett Cecil. The Pirates parlayed homers off both into a 4-1 loss for the Cards on Sunday at PNC Park that also earned Pittsburgh a series win.
"Obviously, everyone can see how it is," Oh said of his tumultuous year. "It's been very tough."
The Cardinals entered Sunday knowing they'd need to lean heavily on the bullpen given the limitations placed on starter John Gant. And though he had a cavalry of 13 relievers in the bullpen, manager Mike Matheny turned to two of his most experienced to try to push the Cardinals closer to a postseason berth.
Oh entered first, inheriting a tie game in the fifth inning. Five pitches later, the Cardinals were trailing by two. Marte crushed a center-cut fastball into the left-field bleachers, marking the 10th home run allowed by Oh in 59 1/3 innings. In comparison, Oh served up five homers over 79 2/3 innings a year ago.
"It's a shame, because then you'll see him make some really good pitches and get some big outs and swing and misses like we're used to," Matheny said. "You see a lot of depth on the slider at times, and at other times, it just kind of hangs up there, and those are the ones that are getting hit hard."
Oh sat for a 12-day stretch earlier this month due to hamstring tightness but said on Sunday that injury was not a factor in his struggles.
"The most important thing is none of the fastball or offspeed pitches are working well," Oh said. "That's the main problem."
An inning later, the first pitch Cecil delivered -- a 90-mph fastball -- was crushed by Jordan Luplow to pad the Pirates' lead. For Cecil, the run was his 13th allowed since the start of August, a stretch of 19 games covering 23 innings (5.09 ERA).
The inconsistency of both pitchers has complicated the Cardinals' bullpen situation since April. The Cardinals had Oh earmarked to return as the closer, a job he seized last season, and they lured Cecil to St. Louis to be his setup man. Cecil is in the first season of a four-year, $30.5 million contract.
By midseason, both pitchers had been plucked from their late-inning roles. And with one week to go, they're still seeking traction.
"It has been a tough season for Oh, just compared to what we had last year," Matheny said. "We bring Brett in to hopefully be the guy we can put in those big situations, and in the past, he's been very, very good. It's just that on a consistent basis, it hasn't quite been there. We know he's much better than what he's shown. It's just been one of those tough seasons."