Scenario 1: Someone comes up to you in March and says: “At the All-Star break, if the Cardinals were just two games out of first place, would you take it?”
You’d probably take it.
Scenario 2: Someone comes up to you in March and says: “At the All-Star break, if the Cardinals were 44-44, Paul Goldschmidt was hitting .254 and the team was 12th in the league in OPS, would you take it?”
No way you’d take it.
Scenario 3: Both Scenarios 1 and 2 actually have happened.
It’s the All-Star break, mercifully, and while the Cardinals are totally in the division hunt, they are an infuriatingly incomplete club.
In the most “2019 Cardinals” way to head into break, a Cards pitcher logged one of the best starts he’ll ever have and not only did the Cardinals lose, they didn’t even score.
Actually, no, this is the most “2019 Cardinals” way they headed into the break: Losing three of four series — to Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco.
If the Cards limp into the playoffs, even without 90 wins, is that satisfying?
Right now, it sounds a little weird and not really fulfilling. But by September, maybe there would be so much intensity and excitement that every scored run would have magnitude and be magnified, and the mindset of “just make it in the postseason tournament and anything could happen” would be prevalent.
But it’s like we’ve got two things going here:
Can the Cards make the postseason in a division without a breakout team?
Can the Cards play extremely improved baseball and make the postseason?
One wants to think they can play better in the second half. But even so, where does that get you?
It takes one back to manager Mike Shildt’s public venting session, on June 29, when the A’s and the Stanley Cup were at Busch Stadium. He didn’t hide from the fact that the Cards’ hitting and starting pitching needed to improve, but pointed out that the club was doing other things well.
“Patience is thin, I get it,” he said. “But gosh darn, you’re 3½ games out.”
That prompted this question to Shildt — a question that is relevant today, too: Yeah, you could be in first place, but does that mean all the problems are gone?
“Here’s the reality: We’re always going to have a problem,” he said, implying that not every player on every team always is doing well at the same time. “Again, I know the effort that’s being played, and the ol’ A for effort doesn’t cut it, I get that. But to the three years of (fan) frustration, the psyche of spinning out ‘what’s the problem, what’s the problem?’ There always is going to be a problem. The guys are human. Guys are going to have games where they don’t pitch as well or swing the bat as well. But can you appreciate the fact that a guy made a nice play, which we’ve always done in this town? Or appreciate the fact that guys are laying it out (on the field)?”
The reality is this. Fans do appreciate the nice plays and the hustle. But if the team doesn’t hit well, or the starters start reverting to bad form, the pent-up three years of frustration will make for the most miserable season since 1995. That was the final season of a rough era of St. Louis baseball, the final season before the DeWitts and Tony La Russa took over.
Here’s some optimism. The schedule is in the Cardinals’ favor. Now, the schedule just was in the Cardinals’ favor, and they went 4-7 in the last four series. But after the break, they play their first 14 games against fellow teams around .500. Three against Arizona, three against Pittsburgh and then a fascinating trip with two four-game series — against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
For the Cardinals, this is a chance to shoo away the Pirates for good, to make this a three-team division race. And over the break, the Cards are resting their bodies. Injuries linger. The boys are beleaguered. Perhaps a refreshed roster will actually string together some hits (maybe even extra-base ones!). But what if the Cardinals aren’t hitting badly because they are banged up, but are hitting badly because they’re just bad hitters now?
Well, at least Marcell Ozuna will be back soon, and he’s been good. He would’ve been their All-Star. When he returns from his broken hand, possibly late this month, expect him to continue to mash. He’s been hitting balls consistently hard this year. It’s a contract year. And his slugging has been impressive — .515 — and consider that it could (or should) be higher. His batting average on balls in play is only .272. The league average always is around .300. The lowest his BABIP ever has been is .296. So this implies that his batting average on balls hit into play will get even higher in the second half (if averages indeed average out).
And we saw some recent Dexter Fowler and Goldschmidt swat. Both hit a couple of homers recently. As for Goldschmidt, he has a seven-game hit streak heading into the break. As we all know, he’s the most-important offensive player in the lineup. That swat can sway a game.
But the Cardinals have tough questions to answer in regards to other hitters. They got rid of Tommy Pham to let Harrison Bader play every day, and with other hitters struggling, his lustrous glove doesn’t make up for his lackluster bat. He’s a heck of a bench weapon, though.
Can they get Randy Arozarena on the big club somehow? He’s hit well for Springfield and Memphis this year. Maybe he’s a jolt? And while this Tommy Edman run has been fun, it brings back memories of Jeremy Hazelbaker or Bo Hart, whose hitting tailed off in the following months after their respective rookie surges.
What can be done to get Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Yadier Molina and even All-Star Paul DeJong back on track? Health will help. But how much?
That is scary and what makes some onlookers so wary.