By Joe Strauss, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
WASHINGTON — The Cardinals haven’t just reached a fork in their season.
They’re dealing with a hairpin curve.
A once-promising road trip assumed darker hues Friday night when recently dominant Adam Wainwright failed to correct a listing starting rotation while a dozing offense failed to rouse against Washington Nationals lefthander Gio Gonzalez. The result: a limp-looking 10-0, five-hit loss before 29,499 at Nationals Park and mounting questions about a struggling contender’s direction.
Trying to become the first Cardinals pitcher to win six August games since Matt Morris in 2001, Wainwright (13-11) saw his five-game winning streak evaporate during a 22/3 inning appearance pocked by nine hits and six earned runs. He needed 53 pitches before securing his seventh out and allowed eight hits before getting his eighth.
Lacking command of his fastball, Wainwright used 44 pitches in a bottomless third inning before manager Mike Matheny summoned his bullpen.
The Cardinals trailed 6-0 before catcher Yadier Molina opened the fifth inning with the team’s first hit, a double to left field. Rather than spur the visitors, the hit offered the first in a series of squandered opportunities.
The Cardinals sported a plus-127 run differential following Monday’s win in Pittsburgh; they’ve been outscored 32-1 during a four-game skid that dropped them to 51-50 since May 9.
Gonzalez became his own closer while crafting his first career shutout and third complete game. He also became the first pitcher in the Nats’ brief existence to reach 17 wins before September.
The Cardinals advanced runners into scoring position with no one out in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings only to be sabotaged by two double plays. They finished the three innings 0 for seven with runners in scoring position while the Nationals piled on for two more runs during a two-walk, two-wild-pitch fifth.
Their fourth consecutive loss dropped the Cardinals to 71-61, a season-most 9½ games off the National League Central lead and without an RBI in their last 39 innings. They are hitting .154 during their four-game streak.
At the same time a rotation that has occasionally propped up a feast-or-famine offense again showed wear. Friday became the sixth consecutive game in which a starting pitcher failed to clear six innings.
The Nationals (80-51) used a two-run first inning and four-run third to remove any suspense. First baseman Adam LaRoche drove a two-run, one-out single in the first inning. The Nats then got to Wainwright for three third-inning hits and two walks before Matheny brought Trevor Rosenthal into the blowout.
During its six-game skid the rotation carries an 8.79 ERA and .387 opponents’ batting average. A long-efficient group has walked 12 against 15 strikeouts in a span covering 282/3 innings.
Several players refuted any suggestion the team is fatigued during a stretch of 16 games in 16 days. Second baseman Skip Schumaker described them as “more frustrated than tired.”
Said Matheny: “There’s no question it’s coming across flat, coming across anti-everything we’ve been this whole season. It’s a bad stretch but the team has still been playing real hard. These times come and the really good teams limit how long they last. If you ask every guy in that room, it’s lasted longer than it should.”
Matheny did voice a desire to give certain players a day off to “gather themselves.” Without naming names, he mentioned that some players could use a break. However, Matheny lost a bit of depth before Thursday’s game when infielder Matt Carpenter sprained his right ankle during a pregame fielding drill.
“We’re still in the playoffs if the season ended today,’ said Wainwright. “The only reason it gets real bad is if we panic. It’s going to get better. We’ve played as bad as we can lately.”
The Cardinals have scored one run — unearned — during a funk that includes three of their season’s eight shutout losses. Left fielder Matt Holliday’s two-run, sixth-inning home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday remains the team’s last RBI. Matheny found himself forced Friday to use high-leverage relievers Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte in an eight-run game.
Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman put the finishing touch on the night with a two-run home run off Motte.
Perhaps more ominous, Molina continued to move haltingly behind the plate. The Cardinals were charged with three wild pitches as bruising from Tuesday’s collision continues to affect Molina’s left side. Molina left the game via a double switch for a second straight game and may get today off.
An offense billed as the league’s deepest is two for 20 with runners in scoring position the last four games. It has generated three extra-base hits, all doubles, while bouncing into five double plays and striking out 34 times against 10 walks.
“It’s time to grind. There’s nothing easy about this,” Matheny said. “We’ve got to push. We’ve got to push right now.”