SEATTLE — Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras held his mitt inside and high, and then higher, breaking from his crouch to set the target for reliever Giovanny Gallegos in and up, almost tucking the glove into the hitter’s back armpit.
The night after saying the Cardinals needed to pitch “mean,” Contreras was putting mitt where his mouth was and calling for the 0-1 pitch to move Eugenio Suarez off the plate. If Gallegos could wedge the pitch inside enough and up enough it would nudge Suarez back and make him vulnerable to the slider, again.
So Contreras set the target.
The fastball was in, but not up — and then it was out for single.
Two runs came in. That put Seattle up.
And the game Saturday night effectively was over.
“Didn’t get up enough,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “Got it inside, not up enough.”
When Cardinals and other teams praise the crispness of their play they toss bouquets about how they’re doing the “little things” right. There are the “little things” on the bases, the “little things” at the plate, the “little things” from the mound. They execute the “little things” such as the inches on a pitch that is supposed to be in and an inch or two up. It can be a lot all of this praising about the little things, but they do add up to wins.
If a good team can trumpet its little things, this is the opposite.
The little flaws in the Cardinals’ game have been adding up to big troubles. The little flaws at the plate, the little flaws from the mound, a little flaw such as a four-pitch walk to a .090 hitter, or the little flaw of a pitch in but not up enough can be overcome individually, but not in concert. From their curious struggles with the bases loaded to their chronic lack of quality starts from the rotation, their little flaws congealed Saturday into a 5-4 loss to the Mariners at T-Mobile Park. The little flaws pile up — and then the losses do.
“It’s easy to think that way and cave,” Marmol said. “This group is not going to do that. We like the odds (if) we continue to get after it. The reality is it’s not great. The month hasn’t been great. We like the challenge.”
The Cardinals started their 10-game trip out west with two losses to the Mariners before winning 7-3 Sunday. With 13 losses in their first 21 games, the Cardinals were five games under .500 for the first time since 2017 before bouncing back Sunday.
The little lapses that could be dismissed as unlucky had been mounting.
“It’s a long season, and you can’t be unlucky for 162 games,” starting pitcher Miles Mikolas said. “At some point, you have to get lucky and start breaking even. Getting good pitches, making outs, and making mistakes and getting outs. You have to believe that’s going to turn. It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish. It’s all about playing the last game of the season. There are probably a couple of other clichés I could throw out there. But it’s baseball. And it’s tough.
“We’re not playing bad ball,” he continued. “We’re a run or two back in most of these games. It’s a ball falling or a pitch getting made a little better sometimes. It’s not like we’re getting beat real bad. They’re close games. Which maybe makes it all the more frustrating.”
The Cardinals got off to a good start Saturday against one of the best starters in the majors. Luis Castillo, an old familiar face from his Cincinnati days, entered his fifth start of the season having allowed two earned runs in his previous 24? innings. The Cardinals tagged him with that many in the third inning. But the number of chances they had to do more against the Mariners’ right-hander stood out as much the runs they got. Three of the first four Cardinals singled off Castillo in the first inning. Five minutes into the game and they had a 1-0 lead on Nolan Arenado’s RBI single.
By the middle of the third, back-to-back doubles on back-to-back pitches had widened the Cardinals lead to 3-1. Contreras and Nolan Gorman hit the doubles that produced as many runs against Castillo on two pitches as the first 88 batters of the season did.
“Yeah, he’s really good, though, and it’s hard to get guys on,” Marmol said. “Score one? Yes. Would it have been nice to score more? Absolutely. You get seven knocks and put three on him not many teams do that.”
Where the Cardinals missed was in the first inning after Gorman fouled off three pitches to earn a seven-pitch walk from Castillo. That loaded the bases.
They would not unload.
Castillo struck out Tyler O’Neill to end the first inning, and the Cardinals slipped to four-for-23 (.174) with the bases loaded this season at the time. They’ve struck out eight times.
Other trends continued to trip them.
Unless he retired the first three batters of the sixth inning, Mikolas was not going to complete that inning to assure the rotation had a league-low two quality starts through 21 games before Jack Flaherty turned in one Sunday afternoon.
“We’re way better than that,” Mikolas said.
He fell behind the final batter he faced, Teoscar Hernandez, on the first 3-0 pitches. He got a gift strike from the umpire to find footing, and got the count back full. After spending most of the game bedeviling the Mariners with his breaking pitches ¯ including one curve that had a 5-foot vertical break — he went to a fastball on the 3-2 pitch. Hernandez put it out of the ballpark to tie the game 3-3.
“It was really frustrating to me to go 3-0 on him right there, and then get some generous calls from the umpire to get back 3-2,” Mikolas said. “To have my decent outing blown there on a pitch there at the end.”
The tie game that came on Mikolas’ final pitch lasted another inning. Lefty Zack Thompson walked Kolten Wong on four pitches to open the seventh. The former Cardinals infielder sported a .094 average for the season coming into the plate appearance. No. 9 hitting J. P. Crawford followed with a single, and by the time Gallegos entered the game two runners were on base, the go-ahead runner was in scoring position, and he had three outs to get.
But Suarez got Gallegos.
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