DENVER • When the Cardinals removed Jaime Garcia from the rotation this past week and reassigned the lefty to an undetermined role in the bullpen, manager Mike Matheny stressed that the move didn’t have to be permanent.
He could reapply for his former job with every inning he pitched.
An island of intrigue in Wednesday’s pungent swamp of a loss, Garcia threw four scoreless innings, and against a lineup no other pitcher could tame, he held Colorado to one hit. All around Garcia’s relief outing at Coors Field was the Rockies’ 11-1 rout of the Cardinals, and Garcia only entered the game when rookie Luke Weaver left it after two problematic innings.
In the thick of a wild-card race, the Cardinals have remained open to shifting or recasting their rotation on the go, as they did removing Garcia, and will discuss again if after relieving Weaver the lefty might replace him.
“I’ve said in the past that I’m here for whatever the team needs me to do,” Garcia said. “Starting is what I’ve always done, but whatever they ask me to do I’ll be ready. Whatever decision they make, I’ll be ready. If Friday I’m in the bullpen, I’ll be ready. I will do what is within my control to be ready for the team.”
The Cardinals failed to set the pace in the wild-card chase by losing in the afternoon, then San Francisco and the New York Mets followed suit by losing night games. The teams thus remained in a three-way tie in the National League wild-card race, and only two will qualify for the postseason.
A four-game winning streak for the Cardinals ended with a thud. The Cardinals (80-72) were trying for the ninth time this season to get 10 games better than .500, and for the ninth time this season they lost that game.
Colorado’s Nolan Arenado hit a grand slam off Weaver to push the Rockies to an early lead, and Tom Murphy’s homer in the seventh put it out of reach while also continuing the oscillating trend for the Cardinals.
They haven’t won more than four consecutive or lost more than three consecutive since the last week of July.
“Our focus truly is day by day and if we try our best to win each day we’ve got a chance to play in October,” leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter said. “That’s the ultimate goal. Being 10 games over .500 isn’t the ultimate goal. If we find a way to win a series in Chicago, this can be a great road trip and then we head home, and like you said be in control of our own destiny.”
A leading reason the Cardinals have been unable to generate consistent forward progress in the standings is the rotation. The amino acid of winning streaks is starting pitching. The Cardinals have had eight pitchers make a start since the All-Star break, and they began this week chasing a sixth consecutive playoff berth with two rookies in the rotation.
Neither was in the majors the first week of August.
Weaver got the first crack at being a starter, while Alex Reyes has made the bigger splash with his seven shutout innings Sunday.
Before Wednesday’s game, Matheny said the team did not plan to rearrange the rotation around Thursday’s off day. It would be the last chance to do so for a wild-card game unless they introduced a sixth starter or had a pitcher go on short rest.
With 10 games remaining, the Cardinals have two turns of the rotation to plot. The next time they would need a fifth starter — ostensibly Weaver’s turn — would be Tuesday. That same pitcher would be on schedule to start Sunday, the final game of the regular season.
The wild card could be in the balance.
“Always watching,” Matheny said. “And adjusting.”
Weaver (1-4) had never been to Colorado, let alone pitched at altitude before this series, and he learned quickly about the damage the Rockies’ lineup can do and the irritations of Coors.
Before Weaver faced his 14th batter of the afternoon, the Rockies had a 6-1 lead, six hits, and Arenado’s fourth career grand slam. The Cardinals have been urging Weaver to pitch aggressively in the zone and let the natural movement of his fastball find the edges.
That flipped on him at Coors with unfamiliar movement of his fastball. The pitch he threw to Arenado he expected to move, and it didn’t.
“I definitely needed that two-seamer to move and it was the only fastball that stayed straight,” Weaver said. “For it to flatten out at such a big moment is disappointing.”
Before Arenado’s grand slam, the inning turned on an error. Center fielder Randal Grichuk snared a fly ball and had Charlie Blackmon straying away from first base. Grichuk got the ball to Kolten Wong, and a good throw from Wong would have netted a double play and ended the inning. Wong’s throw went wild, and Weaver complicated things by walking the batter immediately ahead of Arenado.
It was the second time in as many starts that an error prolonged an inning for Weaver, and the rookie did not get an out to melt the snowball.
“They made the most of it,” Matheny said. “He has done a nice job in previous starts, too, of pitching out of tough spots. He’d get in a fix and he’d figure out how to get out. You’re running up there in a bases-loaded situation against a potential-MVP-style player and they’re going to make you pay in most parks and definitely going to make you pay in this one. This order — they’re going to come after you.”
The Cardinals’ lineup, one of the league leaders in producing runs, managed a run in the second inning against Rockies prospect German Marquez in his first big-league start. The spoil from a trade with Tampa Bay, Marquez (1-0) has power and a biting curve, and he used both to limit the Cardinals and strike out three in five innings. He got plenty of support. In the five innings that Garcia did not pitch, the Rockies scored 11 runs, hit two homers and had 10 hits. Garcia and Michael Wacha were the only Cardinals pitchers to throw multiple innings in the series and not allow a run.
Since moving to the bullpen, Garcia has been unable to work through the kinks in his mechanics by throwing off the mound. On call, relievers don’t have the luxury.
He has instead revisited some video and, he said, visualized improvements. Rest may have also helped. Garcia acknowledged that fatigue could one reason his arm has drifted and the movement on his pitches stalled. Those were back Wednesday. He struck out five. He appeared ready for more.
The Cardinals have a few days to decide how they’ll get him that.
“Looked like he was in a great spot,” Matheny said. “Took the ball with confidence. Stood up there like he knew he was going to make quality pitches, and he did. That’s the guy who is fun to watch.”