The Cardinals had a losing weekend in Cincinnati, dropping two winnable games before springing back for a 10-6 victory Sunday.
There are so many ways to look at this:
They lost a series to the Reds. That’s bad. That’s awful because the Reds didn’t have their most dangerous and prolific hitter (Nicholas Castellanos) and had just spent a week getting pummeled by the Brewers and Mets. But the Cardinals were toppled in the series. And now add to that the Cards’ 1-6 record vs. the Reds in the last seven games between the NL Central rivals. Yes. BAD. But even with the setback in Cincinnati the Cardinals have won two of three series since the All-Star break. Good?
This month the Cardinals won four of six games and two series from the Giants, the team with the best winning percentage in MLB. Good! Yeah, but the Cards are 6-7 against other opponents this month and have an uninspiring 10-9 record in July. Not so good.
The Cardinals are 13-9 since June 28. Not great, but it’s a winning record that can be interpreted as making progress, and turning things around. That’s good. But during this solid 22-game stretch the Cardinals failed to gain ground on first-place Milwaukee in the division standings. Not good. And the Cards are still 7 out in the scrum for the second NL Wild Card. Not good.
Even with the losing weekend in Cincinnati, the Cardinals are 4-2-1 in their last seven series. Good. But where has it gotten them? Has St. Louis moved up to second place, much closer to the Brewers, and prime position to take up the chase? No, not at all. And that’s bad.
Factually speaking, the Cardinals are hitting better, averaging 4.4 runs per game in July. That’s good. It represents improvement. Good. But the 4.4 runs per game is basically league average; what’s so special about that? And the Cardinals have scored three or fewer runs in six of their last 10 games — and in 10 of their 19 contests played this month. Not good enough.
The Cards starting pitchers have a 2.76 ERA over the last 22 games, third-best in the majors since June 28. That’s good! But in this important Cincinnati series Wade LeBlanc, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo combined for a 6.08 ERA, provided only 13.1 innings and walked an average of 6.1 hitters per nine innings. Bad.
The Reds batted .345 and punched out a 1.002 OPS against the three STL starters. Really bad. And don’t forget that the St. Louis bullpen has a 5.92 ERA in July; that ranks 23rd among 30 MLB teams this month. Bad.
I could keep going, but I think we get the point.
This is what a 50-50 record looks like. This is also stating the obvious. The Cardinals are a team that does some things well — but also a team that continues to do too many things at a below-average or poor level. The old one step forward, one step back.
At times the Cardinals display enough quality to inspire hope and visions of a late charge to secure a playoff spot. But just as we’re prepared to put them in the contender category, the Cardinals fall to earth — and fall back to reality.
One measurement can really show us the Cardinals’ progress — and show us where they really are. And the facts make this clear: the Cardinals are on a treadwheel.
At the end of play on June 27 the Cardinals had a 37-41 record and trailed Milwaukee by 8 games. And now, after winning 13 of their last 22 games, the Cardinals still trail Milwaukee by eight. The Cards made modest gains in the hunt for the second Wild Card; they’ve knocked two games off the Padres’ lead but still trail by seven.
Here’s the most important point: a month has gone by. The games played have been checked off the calendar. And when a team finds itself trapped in a serious standings deficit, time becomes an opponent. A lurking, menacing opponent.
So while winning 13 of 22 games is a positive for the Cardinals — and surely preferable to losing 13 of 22 — the Cards have lost another month of games. They don’t have much to show for it other than creeping slightly closer in the Wild Card race.
While the Cardinals were going 13-9, the Brewers and Reds were going 13-9. In the NL west — where two of the three best teams will likely end up in the Wild Card pool — the Dodgers were 14-9, the Padres 11-11 and the Giants 12-10.
The Cards’ 13-9 record obviously hasn’t made a dramatic impact on the standings. The second Wild Card may be closer now, but the Cardinals are clumped with several teams (Reds, Phillies, Braves, Cubs) that trail the Padres by as few as 5.5 games, or as much as 8 games. The Cardinals don’t have a straight line to a wild-card ticket; they’re in a traffic jam.
The Cardinals haven’t occupied first place since leading by a half-game on May 30. They’ve gone 20-28 since then. The Cards haven’t been less than seven games out of first place since June 24 (six games.)
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt isn’t a fan of “urgency” questions from the media. Perhaps he’s missing the point. Even after trying to push back, the Cardinals continue to be pushed down … and held down … sitting at least seven games out of first place for a month. With only 62 games remaining on the schedule, the Cardinals need to make their move, and start piling up victories. This team must heat up and stay hot. Their current pace — 6-4 since the All-Star break — will leave them woefully short.
The “urgency” questions only surface because of signals sent by Shildt. At times the manager comes across as a man who believes the Cardinals have plenty of time on their side. We hear it a lot from the players: hey, we have 13 games remaining with the Brewers!
It’s an interesting attitude. Welcome to the new “Cardinal Way,” where urgency is evidently a dirty word instead of an emotional force that can propel your team.
When you draw comfort from having 13 games left against Milwaukee, maybe it explains why losing games isn’t as uncomfortable as it should be for the 2021 Cardinals.
AS OTHERS SEE US:
Zachary Silver of MLB.com recommended this strategy for the Cardinals at the July 30 trade deadline: Set yourself up for the rotation in 2022.
“Flirting with contention thanks to some cleaner baseball in July, the Cardinals still find themselves in third place, well enough behind the first-place Brewers that trading for a rental doesn’t make a lot of sense. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak, too, has shot down the notion of being sellers. So that leaves two options: buying, or holding pat.
“If the former option, the Cards would likely target a starter — and one with control past 2021. Think Kyle Gibson, Matthew Boyd or José Berríos (if they’re willing to make a splashier deal). The impending returns of Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty help their cause, but truth is that the Cardinals would benefit from having one more starter even when fully healthy. Their operating past — with Paul Goldschmidt, with Nolan Arenado, with Jim Edmonds, with other big Cardinals trades — suggests an offseason deal may be more likely, though.”
Thanks for reading…
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference/Stathead, Bill James Online, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.