TORONTO -- Whether it is the juggernaut San Francisco Giants, last-place Kansas City or now first-place Toronto, the reigning National League champions have run into a string of teams that know how to get the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals pull a walk. The opponent drills a double. The Cards send one hard ground ball up the middle. The opponent sends the ball over the wall.
At least, that's the Toronto way.
A Blue Jays lineup that has the power to change a game with a swing or two reminded the Cardinals on Friday of the lineup they once had. Solo home runs by Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie proved the difference as Toronto deepened the Cardinals' rut with a 3-1 victory at Rogers Centre. In almost every inning, the Blue Jays threatened to turn a taut game into a debacle with a lineup that has enough power for intimidation.
"It should be what they're thinking about our lineup, too," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "It just isn't the case right now. These guys are putting together some radical numbers. That lineup has a lot of confidence right now.
"And we're not there yet."
The Cardinals haven't been there all season, grasping for singles and watching scoring chances pass like sawdust through their hands. The only constant for the Cardinals as they struggle through the first third of the season is a pedestrian offense, one that cost them wins early when the pitching was dominant and one that cannot carry the club when the pitching needs it. Several weeks ago, Matheny mentioned that the Cardinals' record was better than they had played. It's regressed to the measure.
The Cardinals have lost eight of their past 10 games and slipped to .500. At 31-31, this is the latest they've been at .500 since June 2012, when they were 35-35.
"I think (opponents) realize right now that we're not right," Matheny said. "Maybe 'right' is not the right word as much as 'confident.' You run into a couple teams here, this (Toronto team) is the big one of them, and there's a confidence when they walk into the box."
The Jays, who will start wins leader Mark Buehrle against the Cardinals this afternoon, enter the weekend with 89 home runs, including the two hit Friday. That's nearly three times as many as the Cardinals' 32. The Jays have five players on the active roster with more homers than the Cardinals' leader (Jhonny Peralta with nine), and a sixth player, former Cardinals outfielder Colby Rasmus, has nine home runs and has been on the disabled list. That power is a curative. The Jays went 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position, stranded 12 runners and routinely failed to capitalize on Lance Lynn's problematic innings.
Yet they won by putting the ball over the wall.
The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter walked and scored on Allen Craig's single. They didn't score again. Bautista's 15th home run tied the score when he led off the third inning, and Lawrie's 11th home run broke the tie in the fifth inning.
"There are some ground balls that with the turf field get through. Fly balls go for homers," Lynn said. "You're kind of in a crapshoot there with which one you want to do with. They made the swing when they needed to and it cost us the game. If you give up two runs to this lineup, you're like, 'OK, that's not bad.' But it didn't work out."
Lynn (6-4) navigated around depth charges through the game, pitching into trouble or plunging into it thanks to his defense. He routinely found a way out of it unless the Jays put the ball where a Cardinal couldn't make a play on it. Through the first four innings of the game, Lynn twice left the bases loaded when he got the third out. Through four innings, Toronto stranded nine runners, and Lynn didn't have an inning without a runner stranded on base until his last inning, the fifth.
Lawrie's home run took care of that.
In the sixth, with Seth Maness on the mound, a stroke of magic did.
Three innings and one walk removed from his solo homer to start the Jays' scoring, Bautista came up with a chance to turn the game into the rout it could have been. An error and a misdirection play in the outfield by center fielder Jon Jay had created the jam for Lynn, who had to face Bautista with the bases loaded and no one out.
Bautista sizzled a line drive -- right at second baseman Daniel Descalso. Descalso caught the liner and then tossed easily to Peralta for the second out. Peralta fired to first base to complete the triple play, a first for the Cardinals since May 5, 2005. When last the Cardinals turned a triple play, Matt Morris was on the mound and Albert Pujols had just announced the formation of the Pujols Family Foundation.
This one kept the game within reach -- for the team the Cardinals want to be.
"It would have been an extremely ugly inning," Matheny said. "Triple play doesn't hurt things."
In his second major-league start, Marcus Stroman didn't allow the Cardinals much opportunity. He retired 11 of 13 batters at one point. Matheny said the Cardinals weren't able to "stack" hits. They didn't come close after the first inning. Matt Holliday was thrown out at the plate for the second out of the first inning -- an "aggressive" move that Matheny applauded because "every run for us is a big play now." In the ninth, not even a fan's interference could go the Cardinals way. A review of a popup by Tony Cruz showed that a fan reached into the field of play to disrupt Bautista's attempt to catch the ball.
A new rule in place makes that an out because the fan broke the invisible barrier between the seat and the field of play. Even fans are taking chances to hit away from the Cardinals.
"When you look at some of the things we've done this year, we're a little off pace," Matheny said. "I think that does create a different threat. But the reality is it's not gone. It's just not here right now. It's a matter of figuring how we get back to that. We don't care if they have fear or not, but we want to have that production that puts fear in people."
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