Marooned on the disabled list and left behind to watch from St. Louis, Cardinals right fielder Stephen Piscotty saw his teammates click for a flawless road trip in the same way most fans did, on television and between commercials breaks.
“Made me jealous watching,” he said early Friday. “The team’s firing on all cylinders.”
With Piscotty in the dugout and the largest crowd of the season in attendance to welcome the Cardinals back from the six-game sweep through Atlanta and Miami, that all-systems-go club did not find its way back home, not in time to beat their archrivals there. Some familiar cylinders kept misfiring in a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium.
The Cubs got three home runs, including two from Willson Contreras, to push themselves back to better than .500 and halt the Cardinals’ winning streak that elevated them into first place. Eddie Butler, auditioning to fill the sinkhole that has been the Cubs’ fifth-starter spot, pitched six scoreless innings in his first start of the season, his first also against the Cardinals. After scoring 43 runs in the previous six games, the Cardinals got two hits off Butler. Both were by Aledmys Diaz. Neither left the infield.
“We needed to stop their hot streak and get ourselves on one,” Butler said.
The limited offense left the Cardinals vulnerable to some of the glitches that have cost them at home before or against some of the better teams already this season. The decisive run came on a home run by a lefthanded hitter against lefty reliever Brett Cecil, who has allowed a .929 slugging percentage to lefties this season. Contreras’ throwing error in the ninth on a strikeout put the tying run at second base, where closer Wade Davis stranded him for the win. The Cardinals had the tying run at first base in the seventh inning.
That runner, Dexter Fowler, was picked off.
Home is where the hiccups are.
With 47,601 tickets sold — the third-most ever for a regular-season game at Busch Stadium III — the Cardinals welcomed the defending World Series champ while coming off their best stretch of baseball this season. The Cardinals hit seven home runs as they swept Atlanta this past weekend and none as they rallied twice from four-run deficits to sweep Miami. The rotation gave them four quality starts in six days, and the bullpen twice had to manage five innings or more for a win. For the Cardinals, the series against the Cubs offered a showcase of the directions both teams have been heading in the past week — the 6-0 Cardinals vs. the 1-5 Cubs. The pitching sturdy Cardinals, with fifth-best 3.53 rotation ERA, and the pitching thirsty Cubs, eighth-worst at 4.56.
But the Cubs had a familiar edge in Butler’s unfamiliarity.
“You’re going to have those games (and) it seems like we have them often against young pitchers we haven’t seen that much,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Every guy they bring in here has the ability to do what he did. We just can’t forget the kind of offense we have been putting up and the kind of offense we expect to keep putting up.”
The Cubs turned to Butler (1-0) after Brett Anderson collected five outs in his previous two starts — combined. As they meandered to a 17-17 start, the defending champs have lacked the consistent starting of a contender. Their starters have averaged around 5 1/3 innings per appearance, putting a heavier burden on a bullpen that recently had to shoulder extra innings and a series in Colorado. Despite a 1.17 ERA at Class AAA this season, Butler’s past had been rocky in the majors. He had a 7.17 ERA for Colorado last season, and his final 13 appearances all came in losses. The Cardinals’ roster entered the game five-for-seven against him. By the end of the third inning, they were six-for-17.
Butler invited trouble in the first two walks but quelled the Cardinals. In the third, Fowler walked and got to second on a wild pitch with no outs. The only excitement he had after that was narrowly avoiding a pickoff attempt.
Two strikeouts and a hard liner ended the inning.
“I chased way too much,” said Tommy Pham, one of those strikeouts. “I had a bad day. I was swinging at way too many balls outside the zone. As a hitter, in this game, when you do that you’re putting the odds against you, you know. My first at-bat, I didn’t even swing at a strike. My second at-bat I chased ball four.”
His fourth at-bat, he didn’t get a chance to swing.
The Cubs built a 3-0 lead one homer at time. Contreras had the first multi-homer game of his career with two solo shots off Mike Leake (4-2). The Cubs went through three players in the No. 2 spot of the order by the second inning — Kris Bryant (ill) was a late scratch; Jon Jay (back spasms) was an early exit — and the third, Tommy La Stella, delivered the decisive homer. Against Cecil in the seventh, La Stella laced a solo homer, his first of the season. Lefties, like La Stella, are batting .464 against the Cardinals’ left reliever.
The Cardinals answered La Stella’s shot with Randal Grichuk’s in the bottom of the seventh to end his zero-for-18 skid. Two two-out walks put the tying runs on base and brought former closer Hector Rondon in to face Pham. Rondon fell behind, 2-0, before the count didn’t matter. Contreras caught Fowler trying take a larger lead, as if to tie the game on an extra-base hit, and threw behind him for the inning’s final out.
“We know. We know. He’s seen this guy behind the plate,” Matheny said. “He’s picked off many people — more than anybody in the game this last year. So it’s not a surprise. But you can get caught off guard just being aggressive.”
Contreras’ overaggressive throw to first on what would have been the final out of the game gave the Cardinals a flicker of that road mojo. Kolten Wong had struck out on a ball in the dirt, but Contreras’ error allowed a run to score and put Wong at second. There he stayed.
The Cardinals had such success while gone.
“We couldn’t get much going,” Matheny said.