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Hochman: What the Cardinals’ blowout loss and comeback win in London tell us about this team

As the Cubs took a 4-0 lead in Sunday’s first inning, following their 9-1 drubbing of St. Louis the day before, I felt confident in my tweeted declaration during what seemed to be the Cards’ darkest hour (albeit six hours ahead of St. Louis): The Cardinals officially stink on two continents.

This Cardinal club talks tough, but so seldom does it ever fight back after an early deficit. And so, as the second inning began, a cheeky Cub could’ve held up two fingers as a Churchillian “V” for victory.

Of course, it was the Cardinals who claimed a victory — an improbable one in London, by the score of 7-5.

Alas, the comeback win was an aberration.

But was the comeback win an indication?

A harbinger for a summer of spunk?

Well, let’s talk in a month.

Sure, the Cards had another recent win that was jolted by resilience. Last Monday, woebegone Washington took a 3-0 lead in the first inning — and made it 5-0 by the second.

This season, when the Cardinals trail by two or more runs after three innings, their record is 2-15.

Yet one of the two wins was this one at Washington, a comeback for an 8-6 win. So, yes, the Cardinals occasionally have the capability to bounce back, but they have a pretty daunting “two-fer” going against them.

Their below-average starting pitching sometimes gets the club in an early hole.

Their average offense doesn’t often punch back following said deficits.

During the season, manager Oliver Marmol has occasionally talked about the psychology of getting down upon getting down. Just like that, the Cardinals will be losing big — it can be depressing or deflating. It can take the wind out of your sails. It can be a here-we-go-again sinking feeling.

But it’s also fair to request that the players to use the deficit as anger-fueled motivation. The other guys scored four in the first? OK, let’s go score, too. Let’s pick up our pitcher. Let’s prove that we’re the team picked to win the division by so many people.

But they don’t do it. Remember, 2-15.

“I think everyone has their own ways of getting motivated for a game — I have mine,” Cardinals star Nolan Arenado said before the team headed out on the recent road trip. “I don’t know what it needs to be — angry or not, it doesn’t matter. You can be angry or happy or whatever — I mean, I don’t think anybody’s happy about what’s going on here. But it’s a matter of executing. And we don’t do that.”

Are they not mentally tough enough? Are they not, simply, good enough? It’s hard to pinpoint without getting the Cards on a doctor’s couch. But the 2023 Cardinals are more like the team in the first London game than the second London game.

As for contagious hitting (and possibly making comebacks), Marmol recently described the mentality of that, too. In many regards, the sport of baseball is just a lot of one-on-one battles — notably, of course, the pitcher and the batter. So whether the guy hitting in front of you strikes out or homers, how does that affect your mindset (and the result) in your upcoming at-bat?

You’d think it shouldn’t, but it sure does.

“I do think there’s an effect to that,” Marmol said. “Like, people build off of confidence — you’re motivated by what’s going on around you. That’s a real thing, (whether) people believe it or not. You build off of each other and there’s a certain level of confidence that you draw from each other. And when a guy leads off with a double, it just feels like, ‘Alright, here we go.’ Like, you can build off of that. So yeah, it’s an individual sport, but we feed off each other, for sure.”

The Cardinals return to St. Louis with a disturbing 32-45 record. They are in last place, though only 8½ back (compared to their fellow cellar-dwellers who are all in double-digit deficits). And here’s thinking this next stretch will be a huge test for this currently failing team. The Cards’ next three series are all against teams well above .500 — the Astros, Yankees and Marlins (and of the three, it’s Miami with the most wins at 45).

It’s just hard to believe in the Cardinals’ heart. Again, yes, we saw it Sunday — and it salvaged the series in London. But these upcoming games are 10 heavyweight fights against three strapping and unflappable foes.

And as for the Cardinals’ starting pitchers, now Jack Flaherty is battling an injury. And Matthew Liberatore looks vulnerable. And Adam Wainwright sure doesn’t look like Adam Wainwright.

Already the weakest part of the Cardinals’ arsenal, the pitching staff appears even more exposed.

That could mean more early deficits in games.

And we all know what that means.

Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

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