Cardinals Extra: Sloppy happens — even in a pennant race

ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals picked a bad time to play a flat game. Of course, any time is a bad time for such a game when you’re in a pennant race.

But on a night when the Pirates began an 11-game homestand by winning their fourth straight game, the Cardinals were unable to get anything going with their bats, on the mound or in the field. As a result, despite winning the series against Milwaukee, that 1.5-game lead they had when the Pirates left town Sunday is gone. The teams are tied atop the NL Central with 16 games remaining for both teams.  

Right-hander Joe Kelly, the club’s most consistent starter for the past month, was the main culprit for the off evening. If giving up two hits and a run in the first inning wasn’t enough of a clue, his two throwing errors in the second left no doubt that this would not be his night. He made one mistake on an errant pickoff to first and another when he threw wide of second trying to force out Sean Halton on Tyler Thornburg’s bunt.

“Usually I make those plays,” Kelly said. “I threw two balls in the can and that ultimately led to our loss.”

A little more offense would have helped, though. The Cardinals managed only six hits off the rookie Thornburg and three Brewers relievers and they put two men on base in an inning only twice.

“We made too many mistakes,” manager Mike Matheny said. “And when you can’t get your offense going, it usually doesn’t turn out too well.”

Losing for the first time on this homestand, the Cardinals didn’t seem too bothered by the subpar effort. But the way the Pirates are playing, they can’t afford to have very many — if any — more.   

Martinez impresses, again

Recently turned 22-year-old Carlos Martinez provided a bright spot with two scoreless innings in relief of Kelly. Martinez gave up consecutive singles in his second inning but didn’t walk a batter and struck out two. He also lit up the speed board at Busch Stadium, hitting 100 mph three times and reaching 99 mph numerous others.

Though the Redbirds’ rotation has enjoyed an impressive run in this homestand, don’t rule out seeing Martinez start again this season. Lance Lynn earned another start with his strong showing Wednesday night but a rough outing his next time out and who knows. General manager John Mozeliak said the other day that he would not be opposed to having another rookie in the rotation that already includes two, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha.

The way Martinez has been bounced around this season, going from the minors to the majors five times and from reliever to starter to reliever, you wonder what is in store for him in 2014. With no fewer than eight other viable candidates for the rotation, it will be difficult for everyone to get a decent audition in spring training. But if Martinez keeps throwing triple-digit fastballs, he’ll pitch in St. Louis in some capacity, and likely without wearing out the highway between Memphis and Busch Stadium.  

Craig’s chances for individual milestone have been booted

Allen Craig’s sprained left foot went back in a boot but general manager John Mozeliak says you should not be alarmed.

“They just feel like he’s still at a volatile state in the sense that as he’s improving, they don’t want him to have a setback by being in a tennis shoe or a running shoe,” Mozeliak said. “So for the next week or so, he will be in a soft boot.”

The GM added that the club remains optimistic that Craig, injured Sept. 4, will return during the Cardinals’ remaining 16 regular-season games.

If all goes well in the boot, he likely would need at least another week before he could start playing again. In such a scenario, Craig would not return until the final week — or weekend — of the regular season. And, for Craig’s sake, that would be a shame.

Though he is becoming known as one of the NL’s top run producers, Craig does not have a 100-RBI season. He seemed certain to reach the milestone until the injury but now he’s stuck on 97.

He collected 92 in 2012 when the start to his season was delayed because of off-season knee surgery and he was limited to 119 games.

Looking at his numbers, you realize that Craig’s 2012 might have been even better than his 2013. He hit 22 homers last year, to 13 in 2013. He scored 76 runs last year even though he already has played in 15 more games this year. His average and OBP are better this year — .315 to .307 and .373 to .354 – but his OPS was .822 a year ago, .830 this year.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at