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A closer on ice. An outfield in flux. Cardinals’ latest, deflating loss compounds concerns

Cardinals shortstop Tommy Edman is unable to catch a throw from catcher Willson Contreras as the Giants' Thairo Estrada, right, steals second during the second inning in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Estrada would later. 

Cardinals shortstop Tommy Edman is unable to catch a throw from catcher Willson Contreras as the Giants’ Thairo Estrada, right, steals second during the second inning in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Estrada would later. 

SAN FRANCISCO — Clawing through every inning like it’s quicksand and sturdier earth remains out of reach, the Cardinals surfaced in the eighth inning late Tuesday night for a deep, replenishing gulp of rare air.

Paul Goldschmidt smashed a hotshot grounder that ricocheted off the shortstop’s glove and landed somewhere in left field, just far enough for the Cardinals to score twice and grasp a lead, their first of the week against San Francisco at Oracle Park. The Giants’ infielders were playing in close when Goldschmidt’s 110.2 mph laser bashed past the shortstop.

It appeared, quite literally, like the Cardinals finally had their breakthrough.

The breakdown came swiftly.

And hard.

In a whiplash of events that brought new pangs but the same familiar results to the Cardinals’ first month, the Giants flipped that lead into a walk-off win. Blake Sabol, a Rule 5 pick, saw three consecutive sliders from closer Ryan Helsley and hit the third one over the center field wall for a two-run, two-out homer and a 5-4 victory.

“One bad pitch and ended up paying the price for it,” Helsley said.

The Cardinals are 1-4 in the first five games of a 10-day slog along the west coast. They are assured of having won only one series in 24 days. Sabol’s first career walk-off homer came against Helsley in only the right-hander’s second appearance in 12 days. The Cardinals have had so few leads to protect that they’ve had little use for him, dusting him off this past weekend so he didn’t go a week without an inning.

Which is the subplot to that sinking sensation of losing — the decisions to avoid it or because of it one day can lead to complications the next that only prolong it.

“At the end of the day, we’re going through a tough one,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “When you suffer like this, it creates a perseverance, perseverance and character. I’ll tell you right now, this will serve us well down the road. This group is not going to cave. I don’t care what people think. This will serve us extremely well when we get into September.”

At the end of April, the Cardinals have become a rusty Rube Goldberg machine. Just when one cog reanimates and gets the ball rolling another sputters, clanks, and comes undone.

This is most apparent in how Marmol tinkers with the machine by swapping parts, repurposing them, reordering them, or saving them for later.

Tuesday’s hinged around such choices.

Hours before the first pitch, Marmol spoke about juggling five outfielders he said could all be everyday starters if not for rules limiting the lineup to nine spots. Nolan Gorman’s assertive hold on the designated hitter spot has removed one outlet for an outfielder and altered the rotation so that few outfielders have appeared in three consecutive lineups this past week. Tuesday’s was the 12th different outfield order used in 25 games. Marmol conceded that “it does make it difficult for guys to get into a rhythm when you have two guys on the bench who very easily should be in the lineup that day.”

The outfield had its hiccups Tuesday — Dylan Carlson committed an error in center field that led to the Giants’ first run — but had standout plays as well. And the availability of a “starter” off the bench proved pivotal. A day after starting in right field, Alec Burleson made a catch at the wall in left field that likely saved a run. Carlson had two singles, including a broken-bat flare to lead off the eighth that brought another outfielder off the bench to change the game.

The Giants had a bullpen game going, and Marmol stashed right-handed hitters Tyler O’Neill and Paul DeJong to use once San Francisco went to its final lefty in the pen. Scott Alexander was greeted by five consecutive right-handed batters to open the eighth. DeJong’s pinch-hit single got Carlson into scoring position, and O’Neill — his starts in left reduced by the outfield rotation — delivered an RBI double to tie the score.

DeJong’s return to the majors and their preference to use him at shortstop shifted the use of others in the infield. After going all season without an inning at second base, former Gold Glove winner Tommy Edman made his first appearance there Sunday.

He started there Monday.

He finished there Tuesday.

And he was part of game-changing misplays the past two days there.

On Monday, an error at second base led directly to the only four runs scored in San Francisco’s 4-0 win. On Tuesday, Goldschmidt’s hit gave the Cardinals’ a 4-2 lead, and Edman’s rushed play later ruled a hit allowed the first Giant to reach vs. Helsley and eventually score. All of the runs Helsley allowed Tuesday and seven of the nine runs total allowed to the Giants would have been unearned to the team because of plays initially ruled errors. A change early Wednesday morning in the official scoring by Major League Baseball lumped three earned runs on Helsley.

Two batters into the inning, Helsley had to deal with the tying run on base and a situation he had not seen in nearly two weeks.

“Ideally would Helsley pitch more? Yeah,” Marmol said. “That means we have more leads.”

While the outfield and Edman offered anecdotes of how losing can complicate use and create inconsistent results, the more powerful example belonged to the bullpen. Genesis Cabrera made his fifth appearance in the past 12 days and struck out four of the five batters he faced. The lefty said after the game that he’s been able to reclaim his velocity because of the regular appearances and “rhythm” he’s found.

In that same stretch, Helsley appeared twice, pitching less than three innings.

He’s had to maintain his feel and crispness by light throws off the mound in games that had already been decided. The Cardinals used him Sunday just so he didn’t go a full week without throwing a pitch with purpose.

“There’s not a ton of opportunities, and you have to be careful when you just try to get him an inning because you may not have him when you need him,” Marmol said. “It’s a tricky situation. Just because of the style of games we’ve been playing, they really haven’t lent themselves to him being able to come in. Because of his arm and how we want to protect it, it’s hard to throw him for an inning and then need him the next day and then (he’s) down for two. It’s an interesting balance for sure.”

It’s snapped at them several times in the past week.

The Cardinals bullpen lost a tie game in the sixth inning Friday, lost a tie game in the seventh inning Saturday, and lost a tie game in the seventh inning Monday after the error. On Tuesday, the bullpen lost the lead in the ninth. The bullpen has become a room filled with mousetraps. While trying to keep one primed and ready, all the rest have been set off in spasms of cheese.

Except that is when Helsley did not go to the cheese Tuesday.

Only four of the 18 pitches Helsley threw were fastballs in the ninth inning. The Cardinals have showcased their off-speed approach with both Seattle and San Francisco this trip, and Helsley continued that trend with 10 sliders. To get a grip on the inning with the second out, Helsley tested Brandon Crawford with 101-mph fastball and then dropped an 82-mph breaking ball on him for a strikeout. Sabol never saw the heat. He sat on the slider.

“Pretty much immediately when he hit it,” Helsley said when asked when he knew the game was over. “When I let it go, it didn’t feel like the greatest pitch. … I feel like I made one bad pitch out there. He put a good swing on it, and that was the ballgame.”

That has been the season, so far.

The first walk-off loss of Helsley’s career as closer was a continuation of this sand trap of a start for the Cardinals. The mightier the whack, sometimes the deeper they sink.

“This is the first time I’ve ever experienced that,” Helsley said. “Definitely some motivation to come back on and try not to be there ever again. Hopefully, I’m doing it long enough, I’ll get a chance.”

The Cardinals can only hope it’s soon.

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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