BOSTON • Before they set foot on a field few of these Cardinals recall fondly, manager Mike Matheny and leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter discussed their shared “bad memories” from a World Series misplaced at Fenway Park just four years ago.
“Take the ones you have,” Matheny told Carpenter, “and add some more.”
At the same place he’s had a handful of October heartbreakers that are hard to forget, Matheny’s team had an August clunker Tuesday that isn’t worth remembering.
An inning after spinning a triple play, the Red Sox scored eight runs in the fifth inning and galloped away with a 10-4 victory. The Cardinals, buoyed into the National League Central race with an eight-game winning streak a week ago, have been reminded quickly, not of past stumbles at a century-old ballpark in the other league but of their present reality. A Cubs loss kept them 1½ games back in the division. But any run for a playoff spot they intend to make in the final 43 games will be built around the consistency of their rotation, the day-in and day-out reliability of their starters, and not outings like Mike Leake had Tuesday.
Leake pitched out of trouble in the first inning and skirted it in the third inning before the fifth mushroomed on him spectacularly. Even the times he got ahead in the count he was moments away from being further behind on the scoreboard.
“It’s not putting them away, per se,” Leake said.
The righthander retired the first batter he faced and then the next 10 Red Sox reached base, including seven consecutive against Leake (7-11). All seven scored. What had been a tight, one-run game highlighted by the first triple play turned against the Cardinals since 2015 turned into a rout before reliever Matt Bowman could get the second out of the inning. Fenway Park became Fort Myers, Fla., as the Cardinals started removing regulars to score some at-bats for backups and rookies like Luke Voit and Carson Kelly. The one real rally the Cardinals had involved both of them reaching base and Dexter Fowler drilling a two-run double in the sixth.
The Cardinals were behind 9-0 when that inning started.
It wasn’t too long ago that Leake described weakness during starts, and he tied the sensation back to his battle a year ago with shingles. He had difficulty maintaining weight, and as a result had trouble regaining or keeping strength. His dismissed questions about his fatigue Tuesday, even when asked whether high pitch counts in early innings would explain why his sinker seemed to level off in the disruptive fifth. It lacked “bite,” the manager said.
“I don’t think it’s just because one outing I gave up eight runs, (that) doesn’t mean that it’s something all of a sudden different,” said Leake, whose ERA has inflated from a team-low 3.14 a month ago to a 3.88. “The feel is there. They all felt pretty good for the most part. … It’s reacting and being able to exploit their weaknesses. They probably had a better plan, I guess.”
The team is aware of some signs of fatigue, added Matheny: “Looks like getting deeper into the game, that’s something we’re going to keep an eye on. It came in a hurry when it got there.”
The game unraveled on Leake the third time through the Red Sox order. Leadoff hitter Eduardo Nunez singled, and Mookie Betts followed with a single. Leake hit Andrew Benintendi with a pitch to load the bases. Hanley Ramirez uncorked a two-run double. The bases-loaded jam that Leake pitched out of in the first inning to hold Boston to a single run had now gone sideways on him in the fifth. Leake intentionally walked surging rookie Rafael Devers to again the load the bases, and then the parade started. The next five Red Sox batters had RBI hits, including three consecutive off reliever Bowman.
Through it all, Leake threw few four-seam fastballs, and while he stuck with his best pitch, he also dialed that back. He never touched 90 mph with it. The righthander explained some of that is by design. He said he’s taking some velocity off his pitches and “trying to keep them off balance as well as using what I have right now.” As he’s allowed 18 runs in his past four starts, he’s finding teams are increasingly aggressive against him, and if he sinks lower, lower, lower they’re either hunting the pitch and striking or ignoring it.
Then he has to come into the strike zone.
He said the four-seam fastball is a pitch he’s “learning how to throw,” if only to give the batter another pitch to consider, other locations he can reach.
“He has really late sink, when he’s throwing right, (and) he’s going to have a high percentage of balls on the ground,” Matheny said. “Mishits. Balls off the end of the bat. We just didn’t see that. It was balls that were bouncing off the wall, hitting the gaps.”
Boston’s Rick Porcello, the AL leader in wins last season and its Cy Young Award winner, came into Tuesday having allowed the most hits in the league this season. The Cardinals were able to find eight hits against him in seven innings and take two walks, but the righthander minimized any early challenges with two double plays and the triple play. Fowler led off the second with a single and was erased on a double play. His second of three hits in the game was a single that put two runners on and no outs. Boston held a 1-0 lead at the time, and the Cardinals appeared poised to tie the score, if not take the lead.
Yadier Molina pulled the first pitch he saw from Porcello — a 73-mph curveball. The grounder skipped to rookie Devers at third, who spun a rather routine 5-4-3 triple play. It was a first for Boston since August 2011. Molina has hit into the past two. Porcello couldn’t have picked up a ball, cradled it, and delivered it to a better place than where Devers fielded it to start the triple play.
“He wasn’t making a lot of mistakes,” Matheny said. “He just had one of those days where everything was working right.”
Porcello had what Leake lacked and why the Cardinals are tired of Fenway.
It’s all about the location.