NEW YORK • One of the concerns manager Mike Matheny described Sunday before the New York Yankees completed their sweep of his Cardinals was how a difficult start to a season can cost a team a compass it needs later. There’s no magnetic north of success to point to when games inevitably go astray.
For a team in need of direction, this road trip only left the Cardinals lost.
The Yankees seized on Adam Wainwright early and plundered the bullpen late for a 9-3 victory at Yankee Stadium. The loss sent the Cardinals (3-9) back to Busch Stadium after a 1-5 road swing with their worst 12-game start since 1988. They straggle home loaded with all the baggage that implies. During a rare visit to the Bronx, the Cardinals didn’t hit much, made two costly mistakes on throws to the plate, and then watched their constant on the mound for almost a decade try to find his way, just as Matheny described.
“When you have a good start, it’s something you go back to — ‘Hey this is what we do,’” Matheny said. “We haven’t seen it yet. That’s concerning. We will see it, and I think we will see it for long periods of time. They need to sense that winning expectation every time we go out there. It’s amazing how powerful that is. The opposite can happen, too.
“What we’re fighting is to make sure that doesn’t creep in.”
In their first visit to the Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009, the Cardinals remained winless during the regular season in the Bronx. Although their October success is enviable, they are the only team to play at least six regular-season games in the borough and not win one. At this point, the Cardinals don’t have much to guide them. The starting pitching, so strong in its first rotation, has withered. The defense blistered with two errant throws to home plate costing them in the first two games against the Yankees.
The offense has splintered, batting .233 on the road trip and getting a three-for-25 run from leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler. The bullpen has been burnt, scorched for five runs in the eighth inning Sunday just moments after the Cardinals, in a two-run game, put the tying run on base.
“Just get swept. There aren’t a whole lot of positives in my mind right now,” Matheny said as his team packed for the red-eye charter home. “When we’re playing really clean and we’re just getting outplayed, that’s one thing. We’ve had just a stretch here of some games where mistakes happen and they get capitalized on. We just know there is whole different level of baseball that we have in us, and since April started we haven’t really seen that yet.”
What the Cardinals are looking for collectively, Wainwright is individually.
Through three starts this season, Wainwright (0-3) has yet to get an out in the sixth inning. Opponents have averaged almost 10 hits a game against him, and on the road trip he got 26 outs for 8 2/3 innings and allowed 25 baserunners. The success that used to be at his fingertips has strayed.
“I know that Cardinal Nation is ready for me to get my act together. I am, too,” Wainwright said. “I don’t know what to tell you. I wish I had a lot of excuses. … It all starts with the starting pitching. I’ve got three of our losses. You can put three of them on me. I’ll take the blame as much as I can.”
Wainwright began the game like he finished a rather famous one in the same city. He hooked a curve past leadoff hitter Brett Gardner for a called strike 3, and off he seemed to go. A single mattered little when Wainwright was able to get a fly out to end the inning. That verve was fleeting. The first three batters of the second inning all reached and all scored. Chase Headley poked a single up the middle, and rookie Aaron Judge, a 6-foot-7 goliath in pinstripes, geared up for a curveball that he hurtled toward the right-field wall. A fan reached over to try to catch the ball when all he had to do was wait for it to meet him in his seat.
That kept the ball in play and Judge was awarded a triple.
He scored on the next pitch — a diving sinker Greg Bird creamed for a 429-foot homer that put the Yankees ahead 3-1. Bird entered the game one for 26 and by the end of it had three hits, two off Wainwright, and two runs to go with two RBIs.
Wainwright felt the life on his pitches was good enough to get at least six innings. Like Matheny suggested, Wainwright has a reservoir of past success to nourish that opinion. That leads to ask whether it’s pitch selection, pitch location, or an opponent’s pitch recognition. Six of Wainwright’s 98 pitches were stung with an exit velocity of 100 mph or more. Four of those six pitches came from the stretch, where Wainwright has lived this season. He’s had only two innings without a runner on base — and those both came in his first start.
“As a pitcher I can’t show up and expect to grind through four or five,” Wainwright said. “That’s not good enough.”
Aaron Hicks’ solo homer in the fifth pushed the Yankees’ lead to 4-1 and led to Wainwright’s departure with one out yet to get. The Cardinals got a run off Yankees starter Michael Pineda in the second, and Yadier Molina’s first homer of the season cleaved the Yankees’ lead to two runs. With two outs in the eighth and two on, Matt Adams struck out with a chance to dent or overtake that lead. If he had at least tied the game, Trevor Rosenthal was going to enter the game. He didn’t, so Matheny called on Miguel Socolovich.
The Yankees had four runs before he had an out.
The Cardinals have one direction to go: home to play Pittsburgh.
Their only certainty is the schedule.
“We started off bad in ’11,” Wainwright said of a 4-7 opening that came months before a World Series championship. “But we never lost that mojo. We always felt like we were going to eventually come in and start winning every game. And that’s what we did. We’re going to keep showing up with those expectations now, and we’re going to eventually stinking do it.”