The Pirates' Jordy Mercer scores on a double by Sean Rodriguez in the sixth inning of Wednesday's 5-1 win. (AP/Gene Puskar)
PITTSBURGH • Those pesky details, the familiar flaws, and all those haphazard moments that the Cardinals could dismiss as spring training nitpicks aren’t so easily excused now that they’ve come north.
What happened in Florida didn’t stay in Florida.
The Cardinals’ false start to the 2016 season continued Wednesday night with a 5-1 dismantling by the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. The Pirates completed an opening-series sweep of the Cardinals, and while the Cardinals had their chances in the first two games of the visit, the third wasn’t ever theirs for the taking. At one point the Cardinals had more errors (three) than hits (two), and the wheezing Cardinals offense failed to get a runner into scoring position until the eighth inning. Their only run came on rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker’s first homer in his first start in the majors.
The three-time defending National League Central champions have emerged from spring training a lot like they played spring training — with roles jumbled and still stumbling through their choreography. They’re still having dress rehearsals even though the curtain has gone up.
Everything the Pirates did better, the Cardinals rarely did at all.
“We didn’t hit. We didn’t pitch as good as we could have. And they did all of those things,” third baseman Matt Carpenter listed. “That was the difference in the series. They hit. They got big hits in big situations. They pitched better than us. They played better defense overall. They outplayed us. We didn’t play well.”
Pirates starter Juan Nicasio, the last pitcher to win a spot in the Bucs’ rotation, struck out seven Cardinals and held them to a solo home run through six innings. He followed strong starts from Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese to lead the Bucs to their first 3-0 start to a season since 2007. The Cardinals were swept in a season-opening series on the road for the first time since 2001, when Albert Pujols made his debut at Coors Field. The Cardinals left PNC Park late Wednesday — heading for Atlanta — without a facet of the game to build on outside of the bullpen.
The offense has lagged.
The starting pitching has flagged.
And the defense has proved costly.
The Cardinals had two throwing errors that complicated Mike Leake’s debut, but neither as detrimental as the misthrows Leake had on his own. The Cardinals’ offseason acquisition failed to complete the fifth inning and rarely had a feel for his pitches. Leake allowed four runs on seven hits and four walks. It took him 42 pitches to complete the first inning, and the peppy pace he usually keeps slowed to a plod.
“Couldn’t hit my spots. Couldn’t throw strikes. It was just erratic,” Leake said. “I didn’t really figure it out the whole game.”
The Pirates got two singles and two walks in the first inning from Leake (0-1). He walked Gregory Polanco with the bases loaded to force home the Pirates’ first run. The Cardinals righthander settled himself with a six-pitch second inning, but he had to pitch around a hit batter in the third inning and another two baserunners in the fourth inning. He couldn’t do much to get around an error in the fifth inning. John Jaso connected for the Pirates’ third triple in as many days, and when second baseman Kolten Wong turned and tried to get Jaso at third base, his throw sailed and Carpenter wasn’t in position to catch it. There was no backup either. The ball went into the dugout and Jaso had a free trot home. Four batters later, a pitch that was indicative of Leake’s outing turned into two more runs.
Catcher Yadier Molina called for a slider, and was edging toward the outside edge of the plate. The idea was to get Francisco Cervelli fishing for the pitch. As Molina moved to the outside, Leake threw an 81 mph slider that cut right back over the plate.
Cervelli lashed it for a two-run double.
“I would say that was kind of the icer,” he said.
Leake lasted as long as Michael Wacha did in the second game of the series and came five outs shy of what ace Adam Wainwright provided on opening day. The strength of the Cardinals’ 100-win summer of 2015 was a resolute rotation. In three games against the Pirates, the starters allowed 29 baserunners (23 hits) in 14 2/3 innings, and they had a 6.75 ERA.
They’ve learned what happens when there isn’t another facet of the game to help. The offense has offered only seven runs in three days. Three of those runs came on homers by players who weren’t with the team in 2015, and three of those runs have come on groundouts or errors. The Pirates’ starters, headlined by opening day lefty Francisco Liriano and ended by Nicasio (1-0), held the Cardinals to five earned runs in 17 innings, and they struck out 24 batters while allowing only 10 hits. The Cardinals struck out 10 times or more in each of the three games, and of their first 87 outs of the season, 37 have come by strikeout.
“I haven’t seen situations where I saw guys were up there passively,” manager Mike Matheny said when asked about his hitters’ approach. “A lot of swings and misses. That’s a lot of strikeouts. Plenty of swings and misses. I wouldn’t say passive is the issue here. Only give them (the Pirates pitchers) so much credit. We’ve got some work to do to get where we want to be.”
That, too, is a phrase from spring, where work is the purpose.
Results were the goal of Hazelbaker’s spring, and the outfielder has carried that into the regular season. He doubled in a pinch-hit at-bat Tuesday, and he followed that with a home run in his second at-bat Wednesday. He turned on a 2-2 to pitch and put it over the Roberto Clemente Wall in right field at PNC Park. In the final two innings, the Cardinals got runners but never got the tying run to the plate. Strikeouts helped foil any hint of a rally.
“I don’t foresee us allowing it to snowball,” Leake said. “Either we weren’t ready or they just beat us. There are things we have to work on.”