Regardless of what last season threw at them, the Cardinals could always count on the constants of John Lackey on the mound and Jason Heyward in the field to personify a team that relied on consistency to stay ahead.
The lack of that, as much as the migration of the two players who provided it, put the Cardinals behind Monday.
The Cubs’ gain led to a Cardinals loss.
In his first start in St. Louis since leaving the Cardinals for the Cubs, Lackey threw seven shutout innings and, helped by Heyward’s two sliding catches, steered the Cubs to a seamless 5-0 victory at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals’ loss to their archrivals hinged as much on their failed execution as it did anything from the Cubs. An ill-timed error and a missed bunt unwound a scoreless tie and underscored how the Cubs intend to challenge for a division title. They didn’t just grab two of the Cardinals’ players; they took a style of play.
“We’ve got to make the plays,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Pretty standard when you’ve got a tight game like that. Usually [not doing so]opens the door for a big inning, which is exactly what happened.”
The Cardinals trailed by Dexter Fowler’s solo home run entering the seventh inning. Back-to-back singles put starter Mike Leake in a bind, but he got the ground ball that offered an escape. Shortstop Aledmys Diaz failed to field the ball cleanly, and then rushed his throw to first base. His fourth error of the season allowed a run to score and led to two more as the Cubs pulled away. Lackey (3-0) pitched the bottom of the inning and collected his 11th strikeout, one shy of his career high and one more than he ever had in a start for the Cardinals. After 10 days of feasting on woebegone teams, the Cardinals’ offense faltered in a flurry of 14 strikeouts, and the one run they almost scored didn’t when a squeeze play unraveled.
The Cardinals greeted the Cubs for the first of three games this week and 19 this season with a reminder of past success. On the new high-def scoreboard during the Cubs’ batting practice and at various times through the game, the logos from the Cardinals’ recent titles spun. There was the 2013 National League pennant logo, followed by the National League Central division championships of the past two seasons. The actual line score beneath the logos late in the game served as a legal disclaimer.
Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.
“In the beginning of [last]year, they out-experienced us,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “From the beginning, I thought we were as good as them. But they had a greater amount of experience than we did, and that really showed. I think that matters a lot in a ballpark like this. When you are playing them here — a really active crowd and a very good team — you have to be able to think properly in the latter part of the game. We eventually caught up with them experience-wise in the latter part of last season.”
The Cubs became the Cards, and it showed Monday.
On their way to that third consecutive division title and 100 wins last season, the Cardinals played a precision run-prevention game. Anchored by Lackey’s career season and helped by superb defense like Heyward’s, the Cardinals set a modern record for staff ERA and were the only team in baseball to allow fewer than 500 earned runs. Opponents scored 478 earned runs against the Cardinals; the next closest was Pittsburgh’s 532 against. Even as they struggled to score, the Cardinals rarely sabotaged themselves. It was a style of game that the Cubs wanted to adopt, and they did so with additions like Heyward.
The Cardinals, thus far, have not had an encore.
Diaz’s fourth error of the season was the seventh by a Cardinals shortstop this season, and the Cardinals have a major league-high 14 errors in 13 games. Leake (0-2) had his best start since the Cardinals pursued him for Lackey’s spot in the rotation, and he called his seven innings “getting on track.” In the third inning, the Cubs took eight consecutive strikes from Leake – striking out twice before Heyward chopped a grounder. Fowler led off the sixth with his homer, but Leake plunged on into the seventh. Jorge Soler chopped the ground ball that would have given Leake the welcome double play.
Diaz played it off his chest, and then rushed the throw. Brandon Moss couldn’t glove it, and Kris Bryant eased around for the Cubs’ second run. Miguel Montero and a pinch-runner for Soler would follow, the later scoring on Lackey’s RBI single.
It’s the second time Diaz has had the game speed up a pivotal moment.
“One thing led to another,” Matheny said. “We do also see a trend of him getting better the more he gets out there, the more opportunities there are. Errors are part of the game.”
Hours before that error, though, the Cardinals made a move their revealed their view of such errors. The team activated Ruben Tejada from the disabled list and optioned infielder Greg Garcia to Class AAA. The Cardinals acquired Tejada to bring some experience and defensive stability to shortstop. In short, consistency.
In the fifth inning, Diaz’s sixth double of the season put runners in scoring position with one out. Leake attempted a squeeze bunt, but with Wong blazing from third couldn’t connect on Lackey’s pitch. Wong was able to avoid a tag and get back to third. The next pitch Leake hammered — but foul. He lost one run on the bunt and the potential of two runs on the bend.
“It was a tough pitch to try and get down” on the bunt, Leake said. “I probably could have put some bat on it if I got a little lower with my legs.”
Lackey struck out Leake and then got Matt Carpenter swinging on a breaking ball to end the inning. From there he polished a career milestone. The veteran righthander has a win against every current major-league club. His last came against the Cardinals, and it looked a lot like many he had for the Cardinals. He received few cheers during introductions. Boos were mostly reserved for Heyward, whether he was coming the plate or stealing an RBI single.
Lackey said even the boos could have been better.
“I’ve seen booed,” he said. “That ain’t booed.”