The Cardinals must cling to a notion they’re as good at predicting the eventual arrival of the lineup they promise as they have been at forecasting the starter Jordan Hicks could become.
With Hicks’ career-long appearance as a starter and assertive possibility for the rotation as a subplot Friday, the narrative thread about the offense continued, frayed as it continues to be. The Cardinals’ stalled too long to gain ground on the Giants before the game came unraveled spectacularly in the eighth inning. The Giants drubbed lefty reliever T. J. McFarland for three RBI base hits, including a two-run homer, to turn a two-run lead into an 8-2 rout. Not that the Cardinals offense showed much gumption to bridge that two-run gulch.
For the 16th time in 32 games, the Cardinals scored three or fewer runs. They’ve lost 11 of their 13 games when they’ve failed to get that fourth run, and they’ve lost five of their past season games. Only once in those five losses have they scored more than three.
“I’m still confident our offense is going to be a good offense,” manager Oliver Marmol said early Friday afternoon. “Right now, it’s not that. … Once it starts to click, I do think we have depth. Right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough there to have a good offense.”
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So thin has the offense been that the Cardinals took the first lead of Friday’s game without needing a hit.
Their second run was a solo endeavor: Paul Goldschmidt’s homer in eighth.
He had both of their RBIs.
McFarland inherited two runners on base and a two-run deficit with two outs to get in the eighth inning. The Giants’ utility belt roster meant they had just the right-handed batter to swap in and face the lefty reliever after Brandon Crawford’s RBI single. Evan Longoria came off the bench and into the box score with a two-run double that pushed the Giants out to a 6-1 lead. Right-handed hitter Curt Casali followed with a two-run homer off McFarland to punctuate the five-run inning.
The Cardinals’ 1-0 lead for Hicks after the first inning did not last through the third, but the right-hander bought the offense time to narrow that gap. The few rallies that percolated against Giants’ starter Logan Webb faded faster than they arrived. Webb, who leads the league with five wins, took a no-hitter four innings. He struck out one batter, but didn’t need to miss bats given how the Cardinals struggled to make substantive contact in their second look at the right-hander.
Webb’s first 14 outs came without the ball leaving the infield.
“We didn’t hit enough hard (to) get some hits,” Goldschmidt said. “Credit goes to him.”
The game began with a delay when crew chief Greg Gibson approached Hicks before he threw his first pitch and asked to see his glove. Hicks had been warned by an email from Major League Baseball that an umpire might take issue with his red-and-tan glove, the same one he has used for all of his starts. Gibson said Hicks had to change, and then Gibson rejected his next choice as well — a red and black glove.
Marmol came out with three gloves and offered them to Gibson to pick.
“We brought out a ton of gloves he could choose,” Marmol said.
Gibson OK’d Miles Mikolas’ glove.
Only then, wearing his teammate’s glove, did Hicks deliver his first pitch.
Hicks (1-3) reached career highs in pitches (77) and innings pitched (five) to continue growing into the role of starter while manning the role of starter.
The Cardinals’ goal going into Friday’s start was to have Hicks at least repeat the 68 pitches and 4 1/3 innings he had against San Francisco the week before at Oracle Park. If he was pitching well, pitching comfortably, he would press on. Press on he did. Hicks struck out the final two batters of the fourth inning to earn the fifth, and with the help of a double play got three outs from three batters in the fifth inning.
“Once I walked that first guy in the fifth, I didn’t want them to come out and get me,” Hicks said. “I just wanted the opportunity to be out there, let the inning happen, get the double play. I know I’m a groundball guy. I threw a slider and got a double play. It’s not always the fastball getting the double plays.”
The fastball was not as reliable as usual Friday, and that allowed Hicks to explore another way he’s advancing as a pitcher. He did what starters must: find ways to get outs without their best stuff. Hicks leaned on his slider, turned to his changeup, and coaxed the fastball to cooperate.
For the first time in his career, he faced an opponent in back-to-back starts, and he had some hiccups that aided the Giants as they scored three runs on three hits against them. Hicks hit two batters, both of whom scored, and walked two batters. In the second inning, he had a strikeout that would have ended inning — if not for a wild pitch that kept it going for an RBI single and an additional handful of pitches.
The Cardinals’ project to turn their former closer into a starter is approaching its horizon. After his next start, Hicks will be in a spot when the decision on how deep into the game he pitches will be made on how well he’s pitching, not some limited number of pitches.
“I’m excited to get to that mark to where I’m not on the building status anymore, and it’s about going out there and letting the manager read and let (the pitching coach) read what their opinion of how you’re doing is,” Hicks said. “The thought of having pitches in my eyes is just gone. We’ll get there.”
Will the offense meet him there is a question.
Tommy Edman drew a leadoff walk to start the game. He stole second to take over the National League lead from his teammate Harrison Bader with eight steals. Edman advanced to third on a wild pitch. And by the time Goldschmidt, the No. 2 batter, put the eighth pitch of his at-bat in play, Edman was in scoring position. A groundout to first base was enough to get him home for an early 1-0 lead.
The Cardinals did not have their first hit until the fifth inning.
Two batters later, they had their first hit out of the infield.
Looming in the days to come is Giants lefty Carlos Rodon, who has a 1.80 ERA, and then in Queens this next week is Max Scherzer, again.
“That’s the league we play in,” Goldschmidt said. “These guys are good. You’re always facing good pitchers.”
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