ST. LOUIS — Tommy Edman dug into the batter’s box in the second inning Saturday facing Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer. On a 2-1 count, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder saw Scherzer’s fastball leave his hand cleanly and watched as it screamed toward him. There it was — right over the plate, middle-in, belt high — a rare mistake from Scherzer on this or any day.
It was also one of few hittable pitches a Cardinals batter saw on Saturday, but the result was the same as when Scherzer paints the corners: Edman swung and missed. Two pitches later, he struck out. His teammates followed the same course, as Scherzer held them hitless through six innings.
After a Friday night of butterflies from Aníbal Sánchez, it was a Saturday afternoon of darts from Scherzer. The Cardinals couldn’t hit either one, and after a 3-1 loss, they’re in a 2-0 hole as the National League Championship Series moves to Washington, where the final two of the Nationals’ “Big Four,” Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, will start Games 3 and 4.
Cardinals Manager Mike Shildt spent Friday night and Saturday pregame saying he didn’t want to make knee-jerk changes to goose the St. Louis offense. He admitted after Saturday’s game that he might have to now.
“Can’t ignore the fact we have been shut down pretty much for two games in a row,” he said. “We won’t make excuses for it. There’s a lot of variables to it. But the reality is we haven’t been able to get it done.”
The lone bright spot offensively for the Cardinals has been pinch hitter José Martínez, who has two of the team’s four hits in the series and their only RBI. Shildt hinted he might find more at-bats for Martínez.
Going into Game 2, Shildt might not have been feeling offensive urgency, but his hitters showed evidence of it by repeatedly jumping at pitches out of the zone. In the first inning, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt waved harmlessly at a first pitch off the plate after a four-pitch walk to second baseman Kolten Wong; later in the at-bat, Goldschmidt struck out on a shin-high pitch. The next batter, left fielder Marcell Ozuna, lunged at a first pitch that had to be blocked by the catcher before eventually striking out.
Therein lies the Cardinals’ offensive woes. Nationals pitchers have offered them few pitches to hit, leading the Cardinals to be aggressive on bad pitches to try to kick-start their dormant offense. The Cardinals’ constant swings at bad pitches have meant the Nationals haven’t had to throw them good ones.
Cardinals hitters and Shildt offered many solutions. Get better pitches to hit (and hit them when they do). Be more selective. Stop trying too hard to make something out of nothing.
“Once you get two strikes, keep battling instead of going down easily like we have been,” Edman said.
In the fifth inning, the Cardinals temporarily backed off their Hack-A-Max approach, and that didn’t work either. Matt Carpenter worked a 3-0 count and then watched three strikes go by. Edman followed that by taking two strikes in a three-pitch strikeout. In fairness, several of those pitches were snaking bullets on the black that they probably couldn’t have hit with an oar. So, the problem isn’t just that the Cardinals need to lay off, it’s that they’re getting beaten by superior pitching.
“Good pitching usually makes bad scuffling,” Wong said. “Guys are attacking you and not really giving you any pitches to hit, really staying off the middle of the plate, you’re going to tend to chase because you understand you’re in holes right away.”
The Cardinals scored 13 runs in the first three innings of Game 5 of the NLDS against Atlanta on Wednesday. In the 24 innings since, they’ve scored just one, in the eighth inning on Saturday, and even that came on a double by Martínez on a ball misplayed by Nationals center fielder Michael A. Taylor. It came at the end of a good at-bat by Martínez — the kind that has Shildt now contemplating inserting him into the starting lineup. He fouled off five pitches before hitting a liner that Taylor broke in on when he should have broken back. Clean hit or not, it was well struck and finally ended the scoring drought.
“That’s kind of been the story of our season,” Carpenter said. “Our offense at times has been hit or miss as a group. We have stretches where we struggle to score, and we’ve had stretches where we just pour it on. Hopefully we just pour it on in the next couple of days, get some confidence back and get rolling.”