Cardinals’ bench limitations come to light again in loss to Pirates

ST. LOUIS — Tuesday night’s contest at Busch Stadium had all the makings of a division classic.

Rookie phenom Paul Skenes took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates and carried scoreless ball into the sixth inning, a valiant effort exceeded by St. Louis Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas, who took a perfect-game bid into the sixth inning and a no-hitter into the seventh. A classic pitchers’ duel was fortified by superb defense and late-inning theatrics, making for a game the home crowd fully bought into.

It was the type of game that had it all — except for a Cardinals win.

St. Louis suffered its seventh loss in its last 11 games, this time a 2-1 nail-biter that was decided in the ninth inning. Trusted closer Ryan Helsley came into a scoreless tie in the top of the inning, a situation that isn’t his regular spot but isn’t an uncommon lane, either. Helsley walked Pittsburgh’s No. 9 hitter, Jack Suwinski, on four pitches to lead off the frame and served up a single to Andrew McCutchen before walking Bryan Reynolds to load the bases with no outs. The Pirates scored on a fielder’s choice and a sacrifice fly, and the Cardinals — despite a solo shot from Nolan Gorman in the bottom of the ninth — were unable to rally.

But Tuesday’s loss was not about the Cardinals’ likely lone All-Star pick having an off night. It served as yet another example of the Cardinals’ roster inefficiencies. Pedro Pagés got the start behind the plate, leaving Dylan Carlson, Brandon Crawford, Iván Herrera and José Fermín as manager Oli Marmol’s reserves. All of these players are limited in their usage due to needs elsewhere in the lineup or have defined roles for certain situations. It has handcuffed Marmol for much of the season, something he acknowledged after the game. It has also cost the Cardinals valuable games, and Tuesday was no exception.

“It does, but you deal with what you got,” Marmol said when asked whether the lack of flexibility on his bench complicates how he manages.

As constructed, the Cardinals’ bench offers opposing managers a free lane to use their most optimal relievers. Out of fairness, many of the team’s projected bench players (Michael Siani, Herrera, Alec Burleson and Matt Carpenter) are playing in the everyday lineup because of injuries and are playing well. But the trickle-down effect has left the Cardinals reeling.

Crawford was brought in to back up Masyn Winn at shortstop, and he’s done a fine job of that, but the Cardinals have been reluctant to use him in a pinch hit role due to a strikeout rate over 30 percent. Fermín was called up for defensive versatility when Lars Nootbaar landed on the injured list, but he entered play Tuesday hitting just .120 with a .334 OPS. Herrera can take a solid at-bat regardless of the opponent, but he can’t be used until late in games, as he would only pinch hit for Pagés; otherwise, Marmol runs the risk of burning both of his catchers. Carlson is the only player other than Siani who can play center field, but he’s hitting .167 against right-handers this year and does not play as strong as Siani at center.

When Marmol was presented with a couple of the above references as examples of a limited bench, he agreed, a rarity for a manager in today’s game.

“There are,” he said. “For the reasons just described. Yes, that’s correct.”

There were two pivotal scoring opportunities for St. Louis late in the game. The first came in the bottom of the seventh. Nolan Arenado’s one-out double knocked Skenes out of the game, and with three of the next four Cardinals hitters being left-handed, Pirates manager Derek Shelton opted for the hard-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman. Brendan Donovan flied out, but his fly ball was deep enough to center field that Arenado was able to advance to third. Fermín, the only right-handed batter who was not compromised defensively, pinch hit for designated hitter Matt Carpenter. He lined out, stranding Arenado at third to end the inning.

“You have Chapman come in there, you take your shot with Fermín,” Marmol said. “You know that if (the lineup) comes back around, regardless of handedness — right, left — Herrera takes a pretty good at-bat. … And then with a righty on the mound, that’s about it.”

Fast forward to the bottom of the ninth. The two runs in the top half of the frame did not bode well for momentum, but Gorman’s deep blast to right-center finally put the Cardinals on the scoreboard and sparked a charge into the lineup. But two quick outs (an Arenado strikeout and a Donovan popout in foul territory) put the pressure on the back end of the order. Fermín worked a four-pitch walk, opening the door for the ninth-inning pinch hit appearance from Herrera. He reached on a catcher’s interference call, putting two runners on with two outs and the Cardinals trailing by one.

Given Crawford’s and Carlson’s numbers against right-handers this season, Marmol opted to let Siani — who is no power hitter but is averaging .269 against righties this year — take the at-bat.

He struck out swinging on a 2-2 four-seamer. Ballgame.

Such has been the story for the Cardinals, who fell to three games under .500. They remain stuck in a logjam of below-average teams in the division and league. During what should be an optimal stretch against sub-.500 teams, the Cardinals are doing little to separate themselves from the pack. Instead, they’re proving to be of the same caliber.

(Photo of Brendan Donovan: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

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