Make no mistake, yesterday's 4-1 loss Opening Day loss in Pittsburgh was not a big deal. Since 2000, the Cardinals' golden age, they have gone 9-8 on Opening Day. Of the Cardinals' four trips to the World Series since 2000, three of those seasons started with an Opening Day loss - the exception was 2006 when they only won 83 regular season games. The '04 team, which won 105 games, started off the season 0-2 - which means after being winless in the first 1.2% of the season they beat the odds and turned it on to be the best Cardinals' team of many of our lifetimes.
Secondly, yesterday the Cardinals were playing in Pittsburgh and they haven't played well in Pittsburgh in a long time. The Cardinals have won three straight NL Central titles going back to 2013 and during that time, including yesterday, they are 10-20 at PNC Park. It's a problem that plagues everyone. The Pirates are 155-89 the last three years at home. They're a tough team and it's not an easy place to win.
And lastly, Francisco Liriano was on the mound and he has pitched really well against the Cardinals. Heading into yesterday, in twelve career starts against the Cardinals, Liriano has pitched a total of 76.2 innings with a 2.58 ERA, and Cardinals' batters have hit a paltry .193/.272/.296 in 303 plate appearances against the lefty. Frankly, I'm surprised those numbers aren't worse. I go into a game against Liriano assuming he's going to dominate so taken with the rest above, I saw no reason to panic when he did just that.
Still, there was something oddly deflating with how the game encapsulated every worrisome narrative about the Cardinals heading into 2016 (a prolific member of Cardinals' Twitter who is escaping me mentioned this very thing following the game and Craig Edwards also touched on it a bit earlier). Can they count on the younger players to add power to the offense and can they stay healthy?
To answer the first question, as a team they struck out 14 times and didn't have a single extra base hit. According to Derrick Goold, this apparently has never been done before on Opening Day. Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty have been propped up as part of the younger "new core," who will be leaned on to provide power and continue the team's winning ways for the next several years (dreamy photo here). The concern with Grichuk has always been his plate discipline. Piscotty's profile is still incomplete. He had 256 plate appearances as a rookie last year and had a higher BABIP than he's ever had in his professional career. Yesterday they went a combined 1-7 with five strikeouts.
Kolten Wong, another member of the younger core who has set goals to eventually be a leadoff-caliber hitter despite a career .303 on-base percentage, didn't do anything to help his case. After striking out in his first two at-bats (with the bases loaded on the second strikeout), he came up with the bases loaded again in the top of the 6th and one out and Liriano looking a bit shaky after walking Matt Holliday and Piscotty on nine pitches and giving up a single to Yadier Molina to load the bases. Liriano's first offering to Wong was in the dirt and Wong chased it. On the next pitch he flew out to second base. The Cardinals, of course, would not score that inning.
Most disappointing of all was the exit of Tommy Pham after one inning with what turned out to be a strained rib cage muscle and another trip for him to the disabled list. On the most recent MLB.com Extras podcast, Jenifer Langosch speculated that Holliday could see more time this year at first base than left field - a dream finally realized and now possibly derailed by Pham's injury. It's a shame for Pham who deserves a break as much as anyone, and it also puts a dent in the Cardinals' righty-centric lineup which should have made them a bit more dangerous to pitchers like Liriano than they have been in the past.
It wasn't all bad. Wainwright was far from dominant as he himself acknowledged but the early runs scored against him were of the fluky variety and he seemed to get better as the game went on. Matt Carpenter grinded out one of his patented eight-pitch at-bats (after battling back from 0-2) in the 9th inning and singled to drive in the Cardinals' only run of the game and keep their hopes alive. A little bit of the "batting average with runners in scoring position" magic from 2013 and we're talking about a completely different game. But if the Cardinals are relying on youth and hoping the health concerns from last year and this spring are of the past - it was not a good day. I understand and excuse the pessimism.
The good news is that one game means very, very little and there's a good chance that two weeks from now every word spit out here will be pointless and forgotten. The bad news is that the Cardinals are idle tonight (ban the day-off after Opening Day, please), and those longing for an optimistic narrative for the 2016 Cardinals will have to wait a bit longer.