This is it: Cardinals head to Chicago for a series that could de -

This is it: Cardinals head to Chicago for a series that could define their season

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ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals are better than anyone is giving them credit for, Mike Matheny said Sunday.

The proclamation followed a 5-4 loss to the Rangers that capped an 0-5 homestand and erased the progress the team made in their wildly successful road trip. It’s been that way much of the year for St. Louis. Every step forward is tempered by a step back.

“We have to do something about this. We have to start finding a way to play better,” Matt Carpenter said. “I don’t think we’re that far off. We’re in every game, we just haven’t won them.”

The breakdown of a team’s strengths and weaknesses comes down to all four basic areas: Starting pitching, offense, defense and bullpen.

At various points in the season, the Cardinals have had the best of all four. Their offense has scored the second-most runs in the National League and hit the third most home runs. They lead the NL in OPS.

Their starters universally underperformed to start the year but gave the team a 1.59 ERA over the last five games and have since brought their staff ERA to sixth-best in the NL. Their relievers admirably shouldered a tremendous load early and allowed the offense to ride in and save the day multiple times in the first 50 games.

The defense has found its footing since mid-May, providing highlight-reel play, especially up the middle of the infield.

But for all those successes, there are equal and opposite failures. The most frustrating thing this season is none of the successes seem to coincide. It’s been a mixture, and it’s kept the Cardinals hovering around .500 all year.

“We haven’t found a way to put it all together and come out with a victory. You can draw it up however you want, but the bottom line is we’ve played well but not well enough to win,” Carpenter said.

That distinction has made the idea of winning NL Central an absurd fantasy to this point. The Cubs have had control of the division all year, and the best shot the Cardinals have at winning their 20th pennant seems to be through a Wild Card spot.

They’ve hung around the top of the Wild Card standings (currently 1.5 games back) all season, and if they were to get all four aspects of the team going at once, would be a lock to return to the playoffs.

Despite the frustration of a stop-and-go season, belief is still high in the locker room.

“We’ll be fine. We’re a fighting team. I know we aren’t in a good spot right now but we’ll keep fighting,” said Aledmys Diaz. “It’s really tough for us to play here at home and lose five games. I think that’s the game, you know? We might go on the road and win seven games in a row.”

If that’s the case, they’ll have to sweep baseball’s best team on their home field. The Cubs enter Monday’s game with the best record, best ERA and most potent offense in the NL. They are a terrifying juggernaut that has laid waste to all challengers. The Cardinals, in contrast, have simultaneously looked strong enough to beat any champion and vulnerable enough to lose to any cellar-dweller. Despite it only being mid-June, this series feels like a defining moment.

“This is when you put your nose down and find out what you’re made of. In the past, I’ve seen this team really rise when pushed back in a corner,” Matheny said. “Get to work. That’s the only way to get things cleaned up. The win will be there if we clean up our game.”

A clean game is what it takes to beat the Cubs. Opponents must be perfect for all nine innings. Perfection has been fleeting for the Cardinals this season, and finding it against Chicago seems unlikely.

But if they play like the team they believe themselves to be, they could at least draw blood from a seemingly invulnerable opponent. What follows would be anyone’s guess. Momentum, after all, is a fickle thing (ask the 2014 Brewers). This series could hand the Cubs the division before July, or it could be St. Louis’ “I told you so” moment.

“Going out and winning game one in Chicago can be a big boost of momentum. Winning a series there would be a big boost in momentum,” Carpenter said. “If we can find a way to get there and play well, it can change a lot of things. It can change a lot of feelings.”

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