The omens were everywhere you looked Thursday morning.
A black cloud hung over Busch Stadium, thunder rumbling as the latest of too many storms settled in over downtown St. Louis.
More ominously, a TV monitor in the snack room behind the pressbox was frozen on a particular moment in Wednesday’s game — the split second before Matt Carpenter suffered a right oblique injury during an at-bat in the third inning.
“You can sense a kick in the gut,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before the Cardinals salvaged the last game of the four-game set with Pittsburgh, winning 5-1 Thursday afternoon. “When one of your guys goes down it’s a kick in the gut. It’s not like instantly everybody goes, ‘OK, here we go, next guy up.’ That usually takes a little bit of time, sometimes overnight, but you hope it happens fast. You can’t just blindly say that it doesn’t affect your club; anybody that goes down you’re thinking, ‘OK, now what?’ What I’m sensing around here is ‘OK, now what?’ and with a little edge to it.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Carpenter’s injury is just the latest calamity to stagger the Cardinals.
His loss – it could be weeks or months – could well bring us a less-rounded, less competitive Cardinals team for the foreseeable future.
In a season of pratfalls and mishaps, Carpenter’s injury may be the most grievous to strike the Cardinals this year. Not that most of the wounds aren’t self-inflicted – even by baseball’s version of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
No, Carpenter’s injury – one of the worst that can befall a baseball player – is only the latest in a stretch of mayhem that stretches back to spring training and beyond.
Too soon to review? I think not:
Over the winter, the Cardinals make strong offers to free agent David Price, and are rebuffed. They do the same for Jason Heyward, with the same result.
Middle-of-the-batting-order mainstay Jhonny Peralta tears ligaments fielding a groundball in an early spring training workout, and is lost to surgery.
The Cards lose backup catcher Brayan Pena – the safety net for Yadier Molina, beyond any doubt their most important player – to a knee injury. Pena, too, is lost to surgery.
When the season starts, the rotation stumbles. Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk lose their way at the plate. Aledmys Diaz is a wonder at the plate, but for a time leaves us wondering afield.
Brandon Moss emerges as a power threat, but is hurt. Matt Adams looks promising as he returns from a lost 2015 season, but misses a couple days and then goes into a tailspin.
Trevor Rosenthal, with 98 saves the previous two seasons, descends into irrelevancy as he loses control both in and outside the strike zone.
A glimmer of hope as Peralta returns, pushing Carpenter to second base and Wong aside, first to the minor leagues, and then the outfield.
Pena returns only to go back on the disabled list with a recurring knee problem, but only after the Cardinals designate Eric Fryer for assignment – and he signs with Pittsburgh, leaving the Redbirds with two unknowns backing up Molina.
All that fretting was forgotten following the Carpenter news Wednesday and Thursday. He’ll take a seat like the rest of us, watching while the team hopes to mount a second-half run without the catalyst leading off their batting order and leading in the clubhouse.
“You can go out and say all the right things and you can have all your Knute Rockne speeches ready and get in there and get everybody all fired up,” Matheny said. “It comes down to a collective group of belief and then execution. But ultimately without the execution it doesn’t matter. It’s just going to be a great test for us.”
A test that Matheny refuses to surrender to, even as he hopes for more production from Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia and the afore-mentioned Wong, Grichuk et al.
And Matheny was quick to remind reporters of the Cardinals’ 100-win season a year ago, when they overcame serious injuries to Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Adams, Molina and others.
“We talked about that last year: ‘Don’t forget how the process was going,’” Matheny said. “Where we’re just refusing to give into anybody else’s speculation of what this means. It’s any easy trap to fall into where you’re taking outside information and making it gospel truth – that if we don’t have this guy, we can’t do that.
“It’s a lie. It’s a lie. So it’s an opportunity, that’s all it is. It’s an opportunity for somebody to step up and do something great and shine. That’s what we’re asking guys to do, shine. We’ll give them opportunities and they’ve got to make the most of it, and run with it. There’s certain guys – and I saw it last year – there’s certain guys, that see when adversity hits, there’s something about them, it’s almost they grow twice the size. They almost thrive on all the doubt, they thrive on all the speculation of what it means. And they take it personal when everything (said) and all the tenor is that you can’t do something. So I think they take it to the point of saying, ‘Well, what about us? We’re still pretty good. And let’s go do this.’”
If Matheny was whistling past the graveyard, at least he was on key. Paid to lead positively, he was doing that very thing, even when reporters wondered whether the Carpenter injury might spark the team to greater effort in his absence.
Matheny insisted – Carpenter injury or no – that the Cardinals were poised to play a better brand of baseball the second half of the season.
“To me, it’s a matter of time. I still say it’s a matter of time,” Matheny said. “I’m never going to hope for an injury. To me, it still is going to happen. You can look back afterwards and say, ‘This could have been the catalyst.’ Something is going to get this team going, or just the ... nature of the club that we have is going to take over.
“I think what this does is give us a different look to how we’re going to get there; some different characters and a (different) story line, that’s it. But you can look back in hindsight and say, ‘Hey, that was something that sparked the club.’ I don’t know if that’s true or not, but right now all we see is opportunity ahead of us.”
Dark clouds in the morning gave way to clearing skies as the afternoon went along. But it was harder to dispel that TV image of Carpenter in the last nanoseconds before the pitch from the Pirates’ Jeff Locke, freezing Carpenter’s swing and putting the biggest crimp yet in the Cardinals’ season.
And I was left to wonder: When will we next see No. 13 at the plate?
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or on Twitter @JoeOstermeier