night’s game was....rough. I mean, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that; if you’re reading this chances are you’re a Cardinal fan, and watching El Birdos get stomped like that is never really fun.
Under the circumstances, though, it felt especially brutal. Expecting a sweep is never that realistic; a club that puts itself in a position where sweeping series is required is a club likely to fail. But that’s where we are with this club right now, and considering the season finishes up with four against the Cubs, who seem to have frightened the Cardinals into acquiescence, and three against the Brewers, who have held up to this pennant race shockingly well, this series against the Pirates felt like a sweep was more or less needed.
The Rockies are doing literally everything they can to allow teams to catch them, including losing two of their last three against the Padres. You lose three of four to the Padres and MLB actually has a relegation hearing for you, I believe is the current rule. Instead of walking through that door, though, the Cardinals broke their collective nose running into the doorframe.
I do wonder if Lance Lynn will now be subjected to the same kind of questions applied to Carlos Martinez. After all, in the biggest start he’s made all season, Lynn shit the bed, massively. I assume it had to have been some new haircut or something of the sort. Clearly he’s an immature child who did no preparatory work for the start, and is more worried about thinking up pithy things to say in postgame interviews than he is in actually doing his job.
But no, probably not. The consensus will probably just be that Lance Lynn Didn’t Have It last night, and his character and priorities and mental capacity will almost certainly not be called into question. Which, hey, is totally fine. I mean, the timing was awful for Lance to blow up, but there are times when a pitcher really just doesn’t have it. It would be completely unfair, borderline disingenuous, for anyone to question anything else about him. Right?
So anyhow, as of this morning the Cardinals have now dropped back behind the Brewers again by a half game, and they remain a game and a half behind the Rockies. Neither deficit is impossible to make up with eight games left, obviously, but it’s still not ideal. It feels like this team is going to come up just a little bit short again this year, possibly by as slim a margin as last year’s club, and end up missing out on the playoffs by that much. They still have a chance not to do so, of course, but too many games this season have been given away, have turned turtle in strange fashion late, or just flat-out been lost due to inexplicable decisions of one sort of another. The Cardinals of August and September is a playoff team, of that I have very little doubt. The biggest problem is just that the Cardinals of April and May weren’t, and the late-season version is going to have to climb out of the hole the early-season birds dug for them.
Which is why we’re going to look at the worst, most frustrating losses of the year. If the Cardinals do, in fact, miss the playoffs this season by some incredibly narrow margin, these are the games we will look back on with the most regret.
The frustration started right off the bat this year, as the rubber match of the very first series of the season proved a heartbreaker. In the season opener, Carlos Martinez spun a masterpiece, taking a shutout into the eighth inning against the defending champion Cubs. He struck out ten, he walked zero, and handed the game over to Seung-hwan Oh, 2016’s pleasantest surprise, who promptly alerted us 2017 was going to be very different by blowing the save, allowing three runs in 1.2 innings of work. The good news was the Cards coming back to walk it off in the bottom of the ninth, spoiling the first leg of Chicago’s victory lap.
In game two of the series, Adam Wainwright and Jake Arrieta dueled, with the Cards unable to solve the Farmington native to the tune of a 2-1 loss. Hey, Arrieta is a good pitcher, and sometimes that’s just going to happen. No big deal.
And then came game three, and the first true taste of what kind of year we were all in for. Lance Lynn and John Lackey took the mound for their respective teams, competing against one another in both pitching terms and in a contest of barely-contained temper tantrums. Lackey’s more demonstrative explosions beat out Lynn’s petulant flailing, but Lance had the edge in pitching quality. The Cards held a 4-2 advantage heading into the top of the seventh inning, and their brand new relief acquisition, Brett Cecil, coming in to face the 8-9-1 hitters in the Cubbie lineup. Lined up just the way you would want, really.
Cecil struck out Matt Sczur. It was really great. Oh, but yeah. Um, this happened.
I was in the stands for that game, and the entire stadium more or less erupted in laughter. When have you ever seen anything quite like that before? Seemed like a fun, funny story of what happened at the ol’ ballyard that day.
The Jon Jay walked and Kyle ‘Flapjacks’ Schwarber hit one of the loudest, angriest-sounding home runs I’ve ever been witness to, and nothing was fun or funny anymore.
Why was this one so bad?
The game had all the hallmarks of both Brett Cecil’s particular struggles this season, and the shape of the Cards’ general will to lose early on. The sheer weirdness of Cecil striking out Sczur, Yadi blocking the ball perfectly, only to have something completely inexplicable happen to put a runner on first, was frustrating enough, but Cecil then giving up a walk and home run to the next two hitters, both left-handed batters, was what really defined this one as a gut punch early on.
We don’t even have to wait two weeks after our first real heartbreak of the season to find bad loss #2, which came when the Cardinals headed off to New York to face the hot-out-of-the-gate Yankees. The Redbirds themselves were off to an horrific start, winning only three of their first ten games and struggling mightily to score runs. As a reminder of how tough that early-season offensive stretch was, the Cardinals got shut out twice in three games by the Cincinnati Reds. The fucking Reds!
Why was this one so bad?
This was the game that kicked off Carlos Martinez’s strange, occasional control problems that have kicked up now and again this season; pitching against a Yankee lineup missing Aaron Judge, shortly to become the terror of the American League, Carlos whiffed eleven, but walked eight batters in just 5.1 innings. I know I’ve made the pitching double-double joke before, so I won’t repeat it again here, but it cannot be overstated how flat-out weird this pitching performance by Martinez was. It was also the game that kicked off the bitching about his hair, as his inability to find the strike zone was blamed on his new extensions. So that’s fun.
Worse than El Gallo losing his mechanics for a day, though, was the pathetic state of the offense. Once upon a time, C.C. Sabathia was a magnificent pitcher. That time is not 2017, and yet the Cardinals were unable to scratch across a single run against the big man through seven innings. They finally broke through for a tally in the eighth, as Jedd Gyorko hit a solo shot off the 36 year old. Overall, though, this was an eminently winnable game that the offense simply pissed away, wasting a 17-strikeout performance by the Cardinal pitching staff as a whole.
Matt Carpenter was 1-4. Dexter Fowler was 0-4 with two strikeouts. Aledmys Diaz was 0-4. Yadier Molina was 0-4. Jhonny Peralta’s OPS at the end of the game was .305. Not his on-base percentage; his OPS. The hitting at this stage of the season was abysmal, and was probably reason #1 the 3-9 initial hole was dug so quickly.
I won’t say this game was the lowest point of the season; there have been so many tough, frustrating moments, and several times when the record was much, much worse than the 21-19 the Cardinals were at the end of this game, that I can’t pin ‘low point’ on a single extra-innings loss to San Fran in May.
However, I will say this game might actually have felt worse than any other single contest in this season. It was already fairly obvious the Giants of 2017 were a bad team, and this was the Cardinals’ second loss in a row to them.
The game was a pitcher’s duel for twelve innings; this was the complete-game shutout Carlos Martinez lost due to his offense’s utter ineptitude. That Carlos Martinez was involved in a pitcher’s duel should really surprise no one. That Jeff Samardzija was the other pitcher involved...um, yeah. And no, before you ask, this wasn’t a Silicon Valley startup testing out their new time machine by bringing Samardzija from 2010 forward.
Why was this one so bad?
Not only did the Cardinals waste one of the best starts of the entire season by Carlos, a nine-inning two-hit jewel of a performance, they did so while outhitting the Giants 10-7. They struck out early and often, with Fowler, Grichuk, Gyorko, and Diaz all striking out at least twice.
Impressively, the bullpen managed to hold San Francisco scoreless all the way through the twelfth inning, with Trevor Rosenthal, Matt Bowman, and Kevin Siegrist all contributing clean sheets of an inning apiece. Siegrist was shaky, though, and it really didn’t surprise anyone, I don’t believe, when he headed back out for the thirteenth and promptly coughed up the lead and the game. He allowed five hits total in 1.1 innings, and was replaced by Jonathan Broxton, who gave up the third run of the inning on a sac fly. The Cards finally scored a run in the bottom of the thirteenth against Mark Melancon, but it was too little, too late.
The Redbirds lost this one because the offense at this point was still starving for actual runs, and they lost it because they were carrying 2-3 relievers in a ridiculous eight-man bullpen who didn’t really belong in the big leagues.
You’ll notice that, for the most part, these games on this list haven’t been blowouts. And really, that’s probably natural; the games where you just go out and get hammered are, ultimately, less frustrating than games in which you come up just the tiniest sliver short. Every team just plays badly sometimes; it’s the games when a single error or a relief meltdown or some other tiny thing spoils an otherwise fine day of baseball that you really start to feel how thin the margins are on this game we love.
However, in this case, we do, in fact, have a blowout. The Cardinals, in the middle of August, were coming off their longest winning streak of the season, an eight-game romp at the expense of the Reds, Royals, and Braves. They dropped the last game against Atlanta, but still headed off to Boston on a high, four games over .500 and feeling like things were really starting to come together.
Why was this one so bad?
This was not a frustrating nail-biter in which the Cardinals pulled defeat from the jaws of victory at the last moment. This was Mike Leake coming out and just getting crushed, killing off pretty much all the good feelings and momentum the club had going. He failed to make it out of the fifth inning, allowing eight runs on nine hits and a pair of walks. He was, to put it simply, appalling.
And really, this game will have to stand in for the overall frustration with the serious downturn of the starting rotation in the second half of the season. I wanted to highlight one of the games when Adam Wainwright took the mound in spite of being obviously physically compromised, but you know what? It’s the damnedest thing; the Cardinals won all those games. Waino made three starts in August, threw 11 total innings, allowed 24 baserunners, struck out exactly one hitter, and the Cards managed to win all three games by dint of scoring 32 runs in those three contests. So I’m going to roll my frustration with Wainwright being hung out to dry when he clearly wasn’t healthy, and clearly wasn’t helping, into this shitty Mike Leake sad trombone sound effect against Boston.
The Cardinals would go on to lose both games in Boston. They would then go to Pittsburgh, win the first two of a four-game set, but then settle for a split when both Wacha and Leake threw clunkers against the Buccos. They came home and lost two of three to the Padres, which as we established earlier is one loss shy of relegation, and then dropped two of three to Tampa Bay. All in all, following that eight-game winning streak that had so much optimism flowing around the club, they lost nine of thirteen and gave back the whole winning streak, plus a game. Even the good version of this team we’ve seen the past two months has a habit of slipping up just when things are really going good.
Pirates 11, Cardinals 6 — 23rd September
Why was this one so bad?
Honestly, the real reason this game was so frustrating, beyond watching Lance Lynn come out and just lay an egg in one of the biggest games of the year — which, as I said at the beginning of this piece, just happens from time to time — was how quickly Mike Matheny capitulated. I mean, I understand getting your best players rest in blowouts, but this was an incredibly important game, and it was not out of reach by the time the manager started yanking his best players to put in the B squad. And guess what? Getting rest for a club isn’t that important when that rest makes it so much more likely they won’t make the playoffs. You can rest in October at this rate, Mike.
I will say this: I think there’s a definite silver lining in this list of brutal, frustrating losses, and that’s just how many of the principal actors in those games are either no longer present, or have had their roles changed, or have simply come around following some rough starts. Kevin Siegrist is no longer with the team, having been claimed off waivers by the Phillies. Miguel Socolovich is no longer on the 40, having been claimed by no one and heading back to Memphis. Jonathan Broxton is no longer playing for the Cardinals, having been claimed as a ringer by a Golden Corral employee softball team.
Aledmys Diaz and his 81 wRC+ and -10 defensive runs saved have been replaced by Paul DeJong, his 119 wRC+, and his +3 DRS. Jhonny Peralta was released, picked up by the Red Sox, and released again. His career looks likely to be over. Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk have seen less playing time, while Tommy Pham has played at an MVP level and Jose Martinez has put up crazy batting stats. The Mike Leake of July and August has been replaced by the Luke Weaver of August and September.
In other words, a whole lot of the players who were dragging this team down have been replaced as the season has gone on. This is a much, much better club than the one the Cardinals began the season with.
Now, just to bring it all back home Finnegan’s Wake style, right back to where we started, what we will have to see is whether the Cardinals of late 2017 can overcome the Cardinals of early 2017 to sneak into the tournament. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to, honestly. It feels like they may have gotten into too deep a hole at the beginning of the year to climb all the way out.
I want to believe. Really, I do. And maybe I’m just having a tough time because last