St. Louis lost its third straight game on Wednesday in uninspiring fashion, falling to the Reds by a 6-1 count at Great American Ball Park. Starter John Smoltz and manager Tony La Russa expressed irritation with what they felt were unusually slick baseballs, and Smoltz also took exception to a third-inning stolen base by Reds rookie Drew Stubbs.
Typically, baseballs are rubbed with mud before a game. By rule they must be rubbed down "so that the gloss is removed." In Smoltz's mind, however, the treatment was insufficient. And he felt it contributed directly to his six-run, five-walk, four-inning showing that was easily his worst since coming to St. Louis.
"I've been pitching a long time, and [those were] the worst baseballs I've ever pitched with in my life," Smoltz said. "The other guy [Cincinnati's Bronson Arroyo] was pitching with them too, so he did a nice job. But I mean, I walked [four] guys all year and then I walked five today. ... I had no feel for the baseball, and that's about the worst thing you can have as a pitcher when you're trying to make and rely on your pitches."
Smoltz had issued four walks, with 37 strikeouts, in his first six games in St. Louis. He topped the walk total on Wednesday while striking out three.
He repeatedly threw balls back to home-plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth, and eventually La Russa came out to check on the situation. However, there's little recourse in-game for such a concern. So while the umpires heard the Cardinals out, they took no action.
"That's something done by the home team, by the guys that work there," La Russa said. "I would never put that on an umpire. I have no issue at all with the umpiring crew."
In the second inning, Smoltz walked the first two batters before allowing a bloop double and a bloop single to make it 1-0 with the bases loaded. He then walked leadoff man Drew Stubbs, only the 11th time in his Major League career that he has issued a bases-loaded walk. An inning later, two walks and a double loaded the bases for Laynce Nix, who hit his first Major League grand slam.
It was the 25th game of five or more walks in Smoltz's career, but the first since July 18, 1995.
"You can't have balls sailing," Smoltz said. "When the catcher throws the ball back to you and it sails ... and I had balls sail. I normally don't get that frustrated, but it's a frustrating experience when you don't feel like you can make the proper pitches when you're called upon for your team. I certainly didn't do that today, but I'm not a guy that walks five guys. And I'm not a guy that makes excuses. I just didn't have a feel for the baseball."
Smoltz showed his frustration again later in the same inning. With the score 6-0, Stubbs stole second base after an infield hit, and Smoltz had an exchange with Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker. Smoltz declined to comment on the matter, except to acknowledge that some frustration had built up. Baker said he hadn't called for a steal but didn't have an issue with Stubbs' play.
"It was the third inning," Baker said. "He [Smoltz] looked at me. It was 6-0. With that offensive club over there, it's not like it's the sixth or seventh. It's the third inning. I didn't give [Stubbs] the don't-run [sign]. It's the third inning. With that offensive club they have over there, you saw they came back to have the tying run on deck. He was probably frustrated."
On the offensive side, meanwhile, St. Louis was kept quiet once again. Arroyo held the Cardinals to four hits, and was rarely even in trouble. Albert Pujols drove home St. Louis' only run with a one-out single in the fourth, scoring Skip Schumaker, who had doubled.
The Cardinals' chances of securing home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs dwindled even further thanks to the loss. They stand two games behind the Phillies with four games remaining, and Philadelphia holds a tiebreaker advantage based on head-to-head meetings. If the playoffs began Thursday, St. Louis would open at Los Angeles.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.