HOUSTON Each day on the calendar gives birth to the possibility of another baseball clich being evoked to convey a pertinent theme.
On Sunday at Minute Maid Park, the clich referencing momentum and the next day's starting pitcher was particularly timely and applicable.
The Cardinals had right-hander Adam Wainwright and the Astros did not. More extensive analysis could further flesh out the story of the Astros' 8-1 loss, their first on this nine-game home stand, but in truth the most concise explanation offered the greatest amount of clarity.
With Wainwright more closely resembling the pitcher who fashioned a dominating three-year stretch starting with his age-26 season in 2008 than the one who has scuffled in his return from Tommy John surgery this season, the Astros' five-game winning streak was obliterated. That their starter, left-hander J.A. Happ, couldn't overcome the issues that frequently plague him on the mound greased the skids to their demise.
"It just appeared to me that he was just having a tough time keeping the ball down in the zone," Astros manager Brad Mills said of Happ. "Five of their eight runs came on home runs. They were able to get it (the ball) up and get (their offense) going. That was tough.
"He's been throwing the ball so well and keeping the ball down in the zone, and he's been really effective. Today it just didn't seem like that was quite it."
High pitch counts and troubling walk rates tend to undermine Happ (2-2), and the series finale against the Cardinals (17-11) exemplified those frailties. Only one of the four batters Happ walked came around to score, but his walk of Matt Holliday in the top of the first set an ominous tone when Allen Craig followed with a two-run home run to left field.
While Happ entered Sunday with a career-best strikeout rate (24.0 percent) and a walk rate in the single digits (9.3 percent) for the first time since his rookie season in 2009, he was averaging fewer than six innings per start. He failed to retire the Cardinals in order in any of his five innings, with the fact that Craig and Tyler Greene, who had a combined four extra-base hits and eight RBIs, victimized him to the tune of four extra-base hits and six RBIs revealed his general ineffectiveness.
"A good team like that, I put us behind early," said Happ, whose ERA ballooned to 5.24, highest on the staff among pitchers who've logged at least 10 innings. "They put a couple good swings on some balls and it's tough to come back against a good team and a good pitcher like that."
Wainwright (2-3) didn't possess the statistics to support the notion that he was still a good pitcher. He lost his first three starts, including a bludgeoning at the hands of the Cubs in the Cardinals' home opener on April 13. His pre-surgery velocity has yet to return, which in some instances sapped the potency of his devastating curveball.
With ace Chris Carpenter sidelined by a troublesome neck injury, the Cardinals have relied on their more anonymous starters Kyle Lohse, Jamie Garcia, Lance Lynn, and Jake Westbrook to shoulder the load. Wainwright, who was 50-22 with a 2.68 ERA, 151 ERA and 1.14 WHIP between 2008-10, had not pitched up to his exceptional standards.
He got his groove back at Minute Maid Park, which came as no surprise given his career numbers (3-0 with a 1.95 ERA in four starts) at the place the Astros (13-15) call home. Everything the Cardinals needed Wainwright to be in order to avoid being the second consecutive victims of an Astros sweep he was. The Astros weren't expecting anything less.
"You've got to prepare for him as if he's going to be on because he's got more of a track record of being on than not," said Astros right fielder Brian Bogusevic, who batted third for the first time this season and finished 0-for-3 against Wainwright. "You try to work him into favorable counts and try to take advantage of a mistake if it presents itself, but he didn't make too many today. He was real tough on us."
Wainwright allowed one run on seven hits and one walk over seven innings with seven strikeouts. It bested his outing against the Cubs two starts ago when he allowed one run on six hits and one walk over six innings while not factoring in the decision. For only the second time this season Wainwright pitched like an ace. In the process, he stifled the Astros' momentum and left them scrambling for pat clichs about starting another win streak when the Marlins roll into town on Monday.
"He's such a good pitcher and been such a good pitcher for so long that you thought he was going to at least be better because they said his velocity was maybe not as high as it has been in the past, but it's getting there," Mills said. "He pitched today, and did a real good job with that breaking ball and spotting his fastball. He kept us off-balance."
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