The offense continued its up-and-down act, and was blanked by Arrieta for 5 1/3 innings and five Cubs relievers in Chicago's 3-0 win Saturday before a crowd of 37,874 at Wrigley Field. As Matt Holliday noted, the Cardinals hitting woes are overstated -- they scored five runs on Friday and nine against the Brewers on Wednesday -- but no one can quite figure out what will get the Cards hitters on track.
"I don't think there's, like, one answer to that," said Holliday, who went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout. "We've got to put together quality at-bats. When you string them together, you have a chance to score runs. Right now we have some guys that are putting together a good at-bat and then we can't string them together.
"We're capable of stringing good at-bat after good at-bat together, we just haven't been able to do that consistently yet."
The Cardinals managed seven hits off Cubs pitching, all singles, with four coming off Arrieta. Their lack of offense wasted a strong start by Michael Wacha, whose only major mistake was leaving a 2-1 fastball over the heart of the plate to Junior Lake, who launched it into the left-center-field bleachers for a two-run homer that broke a scoreless tie with two outs in the sixth inning.
"I mean, it's just frustrating, really," said Wacha, who allowed five hits in six innings while striking out six and walking three. "Pitching well and I was able to get out of a jam there, but then just start warming up basically to him and they go up two runs and you just can't afford that in that situation. Like I said, it's just pretty frustrating."
"Wacha was good today and he got himself into some trouble but worked out of it a few times," said Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. "Junior, that home run is huge for us. That was it, that was the deciding factor."
Few believed the Cardinals could repeat their record-setting .330 average with runners in scoring position from 2013. They rode that clutch hitting all the way to the World Series, but with their pitching staff they probably could have gone deep into October with even a middling rate in those situations.
With a middling rate this season, the Cardinals would likely be better than one game below .500. They had opportunities to score Saturday despite not stringing together consecutive hits until the ninth inning, though they put two on via a hit followed by a walk in both the first and second innings. St. Louis entered Saturday's game hitting .228 with runners in scoring position, a rate that only got worse after an 0-for-6 showing against Arrieta and company.
Manager Mike Matheny has tried just about everything to get his offense on an even plane of success, from shuffling the order of the lineup to mixing and matching his personnel to the usual conversations with players. Is there that much more he can do before his hitters take matters into their own hands?
"There's always something we can do. We all have to figure it out," Matheny said. "Any good team I've been around you have times when you just can't figure it out and you're scratching your head wondering what's going on. It's not time to just say, 'I've done everything I can do,' You've got to grind, you've got to push through this.
"That's the philosophy of our offense when we're going right and we're going to have to fight our way through it, and right now it's not looking like what we want it to look like and whatever we're doing, it's just not working. So we've got to figure it out. We've got to figure it out fast."
Matheny later added that he likes the approach his hitters are taking. With two outs in the first, Holliday walked and reached third on Matt Adams' bloop single to left before Yadier Molina struck out. Jhonny Peralta and Jon Jay led off the second with a single and walk, respectively. After Greg Garcia struck out, Wacha's sacrifice attempt was pushed too hard towards a charging Rizzo, who fired to third to get the lead runner Peralta. Matt Carpenter then popped out to end the threat.
"I was also hitting today and didn't get [runners] over and then struck out. I mean, I'm at fault there today as well," Wacha said.
Wacha pitched out of his only major trouble in the fifth. Lake doubled and Mike Olt walked, setting up a sacrifice situation for Arrieta, who couldn't get the bunt down and eventually struck out. Two batters later, Wacha walked Luis Valbuena to load the bases with two outs, but got Rizzo to ground out to strand the trio of runners.
The reigning National League champions were 20-11 through the first 31 games of 2013. Cardinals fans have become so accustomed to owning the NL Central, it would be unwise to assume the division crown ran anywhere but through St. Louis because of early season struggles.
The Cardinals veteran-laden lineup is stocked with hitters who have a good track record. Holliday, for one, believes his struggling teammates will turn things around and match the back-of-the baseball-card numbers they've become known for sooner rather than later.
"Every guy in our lineup has done it at a high level individually before," he said. "It's one of those things where I'm not sure what's it going to take, but I think eventually we're all going to get it going and we'll be right up there at the top in offense."