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The Cardinals cannot escape from the Cardinals. They try to break away, only to trip themselves. They try to climb the ladder in the standings, only to slip and fall. They try to get into the postseason race, only to wander off course.
What about all of their scratching and clawing — you know, the silly term that manager Mike Shildt loves so much? The phrase is annoying and increasingly inappropriate because it does not reflect who the Cardinals are, or how they compete.
If the Cardinals are scratching and clawing, they are scratching and clawing themselves.
A nine-game homestand concluded Sunday with a 6-5 loss to Kansas City. The Cardinals could have won, but didn’t. They could have swept the series, but didn’t. And the one quality that we’ve been able to count on from this team — strong defense — set up KC’s winning run in Sunday’s defeat.
It was a throwing error by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. And you can’t get mad at him; Goldy saves runs with his defense and this was his first error of the season. But man, the timing was rotten. Why the bad throw now? Couldn’t it happen in a blowout win, or a one-sided loss?
Hey, this is St. Louis baseball in 2021. Do not attempt to understand any of it.
The homestand was typical in that way.
The Cardinals played Minnesota, Atlanta and Kansas City and won two of the three series. That’s good, right? Well, with a normal team under normal circumstances, the answer would be YES. But this is not necessarily the case with the Cardinals.
How do they win two of three series at Busch Stadium and wind up with a losing record (4-5) in the nine games?
Here’s another one for you: when a team has a 5-2-2 series record since just before the All-Star break, you would expect the successful stretch to feature a basket of victories, a bunch of runs, and a dominant showing in run differential.
Nope. Not with this team.
Not with the 2021 Cardinals.
In winning five series, losing only two and splitting two others, the Cardinals’ record was a pedestrian 14-12.
Not 18-8, or 17-9, or even 16-10.
Just a blah 14-12, even though the Cardinals had lost only two of nine series played.
And how do you go 5-2-2 in nine series and score LESS than the other teams? Well, if you’re the 2021 Cardinals, this makes perfect sense. Indeed, they were outscored 115 to 111 in the 26 games.
We continue to go around in circles with this team. For some reason we maintain at least some belief that things will turn around, the breaks will even out, the hitters will go on a rampage, and the pitching staff will be more miserly in shutting down opponents. It’s a matter of time; the Cardinals will fly again!
Does anyone still buy that? Seriously. I understand the concept of wanting to buy in, and never would make fun of anybody who feels that way. But wanting to buy in isn’t the same as actually believing that this team will reinvent itself and take off.
Why would we believe that? Sure, it will be swell to have Jack Flaherty back in the rotation soon. But don’t forget, the Cardinals were 7-9 in their last 16 games with Jack still around, still in their rotation. The downturn was already underway when Flaherty suffered a torn oblique muscle on May 31.
Optimism is generated by a lengthy winning streak. The hope comes with a run of inspired baseball that produces, say, 17 wins in 21 games. There is a basis for renewed belief when we look at the NL Central standings, or the wild-card derby, and see the Cardinals closing ground in a hurry — the gap narrowing with each passing day of baseball.
The Cardinals? Over their last 32 games they’ve been three games beneath .500 three times, two games under .500 eight times, a single game away from .500 nine times, exactly at .500 eight times, and a game above .500 four times.
They’re stuck in a bubble — or maybe it’s a time warp. Every block of 10 games seems familiar. One stretch of baseball ends, and another begins, and it’s basically a repeat of what we’ve seen over and over again.
The Cardinals are 18-15 since June 28, 14-12 in their last 26, 11-10 since the All-Star break. That’s winning. But it isn’t enough winning. Not when your team is 10 and ½ games behind the first-place Brewers in the NL Central. And not when the Cardinals trail the Padres by 8.0 games in the hunt for the NL’s second wild card. It isn’t just a matter of catching and going by San Diego; to grab the wild card the Cards must also shove the Mets, Braves, and Reds out of the way.
The Cardinals have had chances to push their way into a better position. Milwaukee has gone 10-7 in its last 17 games since July 20. And the Padres are 15-16 since July 1. But instead of gaining ground on the Brewers, the Cardinals have lost ground to the Brewers. Instead of shrinking, Milwaukee’s 8.5 game lead over St. Louis on July 20 has increased to 10.5 games as of Monday morning. And while the Padres were going 15-16, the Cardinals were moseying along at 15-15.
Fans and we media types keep talking about the Cardinals’ soft-serve schedule and how the boys have such a wonderful opportunity to punish these inferior teams, amass batches of wins, and rally their way into postseason contention.
This is fine.
Well, except for this: the Cardinals are in the same category. They’re a losing team. They’re viewed as a beatable team, one that you can walk on like an escalator to move yourself up. Why do we look at other also-rans and think the Cardinals — themselves an also-ran — have some sort of massive advantage? Heck, the Cardinals lost three out of four to the Pirates when the teams last met.
The Cardinals have more games coming up against losing teams. For that to matter the Cardinals will have to overcome the Cardinals.
WARM BATS ON THE HOMESTAND: In the nine games against the Twins, Braves and Royals, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado combined for 13 hits in 22 at-bats with runners in scoring position. Overall they combined for five homers and 23 RBIs … Tyler O’Neill bounced back, hitting .333 with a .460 onbase percentage and .947 OPS. He doubled three times, homered once and walked eight times. On the downside: a 36% strikeout rate, and O’Neill went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position … Matt Carpenter was terrific, going 4 for 7 with three walks, two runs and an important RBI. He had a 1.652 OPS on the homestand … utility man Jose Rondon was right there with Carpenter as an effective piece off the bench; Rondon went 5 for 8.
ICE-COVERED BATS ON THE HOMESTAND: Paul DeJong batted .105 in 40 plate appearances and struck out 32.4 percent of the time … In 36 plate appearances Harrison Bader batted .194, reached base only 28% of the time, and had a strikeout rate of 30.6 percent. That said, Harry went 3 for 10 with runners in scoring position … In 40 plate appearances Tommy Edman batted .222, reached base only 27% of the time and had a .604 OPS … Andrew Knizner went 1 for 12, but at least his lone hit left the yard for a homer.
Dylan Carlson was somewhere between warm and cold; he had a solid .345 onbase percentage and scored seven runs during the homestand but also went 2 for 10 with RISP.
As noted, Arenado and Goldschmidt were outstanding with runners in scoring position, hitting a combined .591. The other Cardinals hit a combined .206 with RISP.
The Cardinals averaged exactly 4.0 runs per game during the nine games at Busch.
A VISIT TO CANDYLAND: Making his second start as a Cardinal, Jon Lester went 5.1 innings and allowed six hits, two walks and five earned runs. He struck out only two and had an average of 1.62 walks/hits per inning.
Lester’s ERA for the game was 8.44.
“I thought he was pretty darn good actually,” Cards manager Mike Shildt said. “He’s shown he’s more than being capable of being able to help us, no question about that.”
Jim Edmonds concurred on the Bally Sports Midwest postgame show.
“It looked like it was a tough day for him,” Edmonds said of Lester’s Sunday outing. “But I like the way he started out and you know as a pitcher you’re going to struggle. You’re going to pitch nine innings let’s say and you’re going to struggle in the first and sometimes you’re going to struggle in the ninth.
“He struggled in the first the other day and he really pulled it together. And then today he went five innings with just six hits, unfortunately some runs on there with two walks. But I thought he pitched pretty well. You know just some untimely hits and just those walks and a couple of things but like I said earlier in the show, I like it.
“I’d keep running him out there. I think he’s going to get a feel for it, being in this organization, guys are going to get a feel for him … I think he’s just going to keep getting better with feel and I don’t know how you can’t be energized being in this Cardinal uniform. I think he’s going to be good.”
In two starts for the Cardinals, both at home in a pitcher-friendly setting, Lester has been slapped for 11 earned runs in 10.1 innings for an ERA of 9.58. In the two starts the Braves and Royals combined to bat .357 against Lester with a .417 onbase percentage and .524 slug.
Lester has a 5.57 ERA this season in 18 starts for the Nationals and Cardinals. His ERA ranks 83rd among the 91 MLB pitchers that have made a minimum of 18 starts. RH batters are hitting .319 with a .925 OPS vs. the lefthanded Lester this season; they’re averaging two homers and four walks per nine innings against him.
ST. LOUIS ROTATION: The Cardinals had a starting-pitching ERA of 5.29 vs. the Twins, Braves and Royals. Six of the nine starts were made by Adam Wainwright, Wade LeBlanc and Lester. J.A. Happ, Kwang-Hyun Kim and Jake Woodford made one start each. LeBlanc pitched well, with a 2.93 ERA in his two starts.
FINE WORK BY BULLPEN NEWCOMERS: For the most part, anyway. But on the nine-game home stand T.J. McFarland, Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland combined for 16.1 innings and allowed only one earned run (0.55 ERA.) I should also point out that Miller allowed two of four inherited runners to score. All in all, it was a positive set of positives for the team’s new relievers.
And an “old” reliever, lefty Andrew Miller pitched two scoreless innings and didn’t permit any of his four inherited runners to score.
Customary late-game relievers Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes were stung for 11 earned runs in 11.1 innings on the home stand, an ERA of 8.73. Two games against Atlanta slipped away because of late breakdowns.
But another late-game fixture, Genesis Cabrera, pitched three scoreless innings in two appearances vs. Atlanta and one against Kansas City.
The eighth inning was the killer inning. Over the nine games at Busch Stadium Cardinals relievers faced 42 batters in the eighth inning and allowed nine hits, six walks, a hit batter, two doubles and a homer and had a 9.00 ERA.
The 2021 Cardinals have lost four games after taking a lead into the sixth inning, lost four when taking a lead into the seventh — and lost another four when ahead at the beginning of the eighth inning.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON ALEX REYES: Bill James has Reyes on the top of his “tired closers” list, noting that Reyes has faced 63 batters over a five-day period. No other MLB reliever faced more than 53 hitters over the past five days. In Sunday’s loss to the Royals, Reyes remained in the game after a rain delay that lasted 2 hours and 10 minutes. He did record an out but gave up an RBI single that gave KC a 6-5 lead and the win. Reyes was superb in Friday night’s 4-2 victory, needing only nine pitches to close out the Royals for his 25th save. But in 14 appearances since July 1, Reyes has a 6.23 ERA and has struck out only 17.4 percent of batters faced. He’s walked 19% of his opponents faced (with two hit batters) since July 1.
MORE FROM BILL JAMES: Bill updates his starting-pitcher rankings every morning, and as the new week begins Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright is on the James list at No. 23. Going into the season James had Wainwright at No. 43.
TRACKING THE ROLLICKING REDS: After sweeping a four-game series from Pittsburgh over the weekend the Reds are 9-1 vs. the Pirates this season. They’ve out-scored the Bucs 82-26 in the 10 meetings. The Reds will face Pittsburgh nine times over their final 50 regular-season games.
The Reds are rolling, having won 10 of their last 12 to build on the NL’s best record (22-11) since July 1. And at 61-51 the Reds are 10 games above .500 for the first time since the end of the 2013 season.
Cincinnati has cut first-place Milwaukee’s lead to five games in the NL Central. They’re within 2.5 games of the Padres for a playoff spot via the wild card.
Nick Castellanos (wrist) and Mike Moustakas (heel) returned to the lineup over the weekend. Unofficial closer Lucas Sims is back after being on the IL with a sprained right elbow since late June.
Since the All-Star break Cincinnati offense leads the NL with an average of 5.8 runs per game, ranking first in onbase percentage (.355) and second in slugging percentage (.490) and OPS (.845.)
SInce July 1 the Reds rotation ranks sixth overall and third in the NL with a 3.50 ERA. The bullpen has improved since the Reds added three relievers before the MLB trade deadline.
In his last 18 games first baseman Joey Votto is batting .353 with 12 homers, 27 RBIs and a ridiculously good 1.359 OPS.
“We feel good but we know we have a lot of work to do and teams have been better than us so far this year,” Votto said. “It’s our responsibility to finish these last 50 games strong. I like our lineup. I like our pitching. We’re making progress, for sure.”
Upon the completion of play on May 29, the Reds were 22-28 and trailed first-place St. Louis in the NL Central. Since then the Reds have gone 39-23, the Cardinals are 25-34 and the result is a 12 and a ½ game swing in the standings.
After leading the Reds by 7.0 games on May 29, the third-place Cardinals now trail the second-place Reds by 5.5 games in the division. Wow.
The Reds now hit the road and will face a sterner test during a seven-game trip through Cleveland, Atlanta and Philadelphia.
Cincinnati’s remaining opponents have an average record of 52-59. Among NL contenders only Philadelphia has an easier schedule the rest of the way; the average record of their remaining opponents is 51-60.
A VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE
Baseball analyst Joe Sheehan offered this assessment of the Cardinals to his subscribers on the excellent Joe Sheehan newsletter:
“It may be time to look at the 2020-21 Cardinals in a different light. I think the trade for Nolan Arenado distorted the view of the last couple of seasons. Remember, that trade was a happy accident; the Rockies had tied their own hands by combining a no-trade clause with a player option, then alienated Arenado by not putting a good team around him. They were so eager to trade him that they made the Cardinals the proverbial offer they could not refuse, taking back a minimum of talent and paying Arenado’s entire 2021 salary.
“It was a deal completely out of context with an offseason in which the Cardinals shed payroll and did nothing to improve, on the heels of a 2019-20 offseason in which they did much the same.
“If you take out the Arenado trade, the last few Cardinals seasons look like the product of a team hoping to win but not trying all that hard to do so.
“The Cards added only Kwang-Hyun Kim two offseasons ago. They cut loose Kolten Wong on a very affordable player option last offseason, and they did nothing to address their problems on offense for three months.
“With the Arenado trade in process, the Cardinals re-signed Adam Wainwright, and a few days after the deal, re-signed Yadier Molina. It was as if the Arenado trade finally compelled them to make additional moves, but they went safe and inexpensive and short-term in doing so.
“The Cardinals seem like they want to go into their own fallow period, spending less and winning less. The accidental Arenado trade forced them to try for one more season, but the lack of attention to the offense outside of the deal — most notably the loss of Wong — left the team short at the plate once again.
“That they acquired not a single hitter at the trade deadline, not even someone to backfill the worst bench in baseball, underlines the point. Truthfully, I don’t know where the Cardinals go from here. I’m not sure the Cardinals do.”
Please consider subscribing to Joe’s newsletter. It’s essential reading, and economically priced. Visit JoeSheehan.com for more information.
Thanks for reading …
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, 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.