CHICAGO • Whatever nuggets the Cardinals want to sift from this sludgy stream of familiar games — the genuine karats or downright pyrite — the true value is there in the line score.
Despite their ability to take leads, the losses are mounting.
For the third time in as many days against their archrivals, the Cardinals staked an early lead and then let it slip from their grasp, often literally.
One inning mushroomed on starter Michael Wacha and a three-run lead vanished, allowing the Cubs to later break a tie and win 7-6 Sunday night at Wrigley Field. Along the way to Jon Jay’s pinch-hit RBI single that set the final score, the Cardinals had the usual assortment of missed opportunities, walks permitted, leads misplaced and misplays in the field.
The struggle within the games persists.
“We’ve got to minimize mistakes and go at it like that,” leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler said. “If we make a mistake that’s what happens. You make mistakes and stuff happens. We’ve just got to go out and — I guess — play better. We’ve got to play better.”
The weekend at Wrigley began with Fowler receiving his 2016 World Series ring from former teammates, and it ended with Fowler striking out to end Sunday’s game.
In between, the Cubs swept the Cardinals in a series at Wrigley for the first time since 2006. That was so long ago that the Cubs have won a championship since then, and the Cardinals have won two.
The Cubs greeted the Cardinals with a six-game losing streak and then promptly reversed the standings, plunging the Cardinals below .500, at 26-28, and surfacing above it, at 28-27. The rivals essentially have played the first two months of the season to a draw.
In each game of the weekend, the Cardinals had the lead after batting in the fourth inning. They lost it soon thereafter.
They were outscored in the series 6-0 in the seventh inning or later. The decisive run in each game came in the seventh or eighth, and six times in their past 20 games they’ve cracked in the seventh or later.
“I’d say we’ve had two weeks of being in every single game,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Two weeks of having multiple games that we typically put away. And for whatever reason, they’re just hard to finish right now.”
Mining the individual games turns up a few trends. Until concocting a four-run lead Sunday, the offense has been lacking in most of the games, giving the defense and the pitchers little margin for error. And there have been errors. Although none was assessed on the outfielders Friday at Wrigley, two catches not made in the outfield cost them that game. On Saturday, ghosts of outings past haunted the bullpen and kept starter Mike Leake in the game just long enough to be overwhelmed by a grand slam. And Sunday it was a mix from all of these things — the 2017 Cardinals’ version of rolling craps.
Cubs rookie Ian Happ slugged two home runs off starter Michael Wacha, who could not complete the fifth inning despite being given a 4-1 lead. Wacha stumbled with runners on base, speeding up and losing the strike zone before losing the lead. Walks led to runs. An error in right field led to a few more.
“When things started to go bad, they went bad in a hurry,” Matheny said.
It took Wacha four pitches to get the first two outs of the fourth inning. He threw 20 more before he was out of it. The righthander, freed from two bruising starts against the Dodgers, was quick to establish the bottom of the zone and his fastball, and that allowed him to be judicious with his change. He struck out Kris Bryant with a 96 mph fastball in the first, and got another strikeout at 98 mph in the second.
He could have ridden that lightning for several more innings, but veered in the fourth. He allowed a two-out walk, almost got an out on rookie Paul DeJong’s sneaky good play at second, and then started speeding up, nitpicking, walking. It didn’t help that an error in right turned a single into two runs and a runner at third. Happ took immediate advantage when Wacha hung a changeup and the rookie put it in the right-field seats for a 6-4 lead.
The Cubs scored five runs in the inning and for the third time in three starts Wacha had a three-run lead and misspent it.
“That’s on me,” Wacha said. “Guys — they’ve been giving me a lead out there and I’ve just been serving it right back to them. That’s not the way to go about it. Whenever we get a lead that starter is supposed to go out there and keep that lead of us. I haven’t been doing that.”
Matheny pointed out one pitch that came close to helping Wacha.
It was called a ball, but Matheny stopped short of letting it be an excuse.
“I’m tired of blaming umpires and zones,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get it done. And at that point it just started snowballing.”
Stephen Piscotty personified the extremes of the fourth inning, from finally getting the best out of the lineup to an inning that was just more of the usual. Fowler walked and Matt Carpenter followed with a walk to lead off the fourth against Cubs righthander Kyle Hendricks. Piscotty capitalized with his first home run since April 15, and his first hit with runners in scoring position since returning to the lineup. His three-run homer keyed a rally, but didn’t end it. Jedd Gyorko followed with a single, a stolen base, and a run on DeJong’s RBI single The rookie had two RBIs in the game, the second coming in the sixth as he gamely grounded out for a situational RBI.
Aledmys Diaz added a double that tied the score 6-6.
He stood at second with one out.
He did not budge.
An inning later, two singles off Matt Bowman (1-2) gave Jay the opportunity to put the Cubs ahead and the former Cardinals outfielder did with his ninth pinch-hit of the season. The reassuring jag of offense was overshadowed by the mistakes Fowler mentioned, the ragged inning by Wacha, and how vulnerable those made the Cardinals to the slimmest difference. One. Nothing else matters.
“That’s just kind of the run we’re on right now,” Matheny said. “That we’ve got to fix.”