By Mike Bailey, Baseball writer
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (BaseballStL) -- “We’ve got to fix it,” Mike Matheny said after Thursday night’s ugly loss to the Kansas City Royals. “We’ve been saying that for awhile now. We’ve got to figure out how to get right.”
Thursday, the Cards made three errors, threw two wild pitches, ran themselves out of a potential big inning and could not take advantage of seven walks by a shaky Royal staff. It was a tableau sadly familiar to Cardinal fans.
But the question is, what is the “it” that must be fixed?
“This team has the right character and make-up,” Matheny said of Wednesday heart-breaking 12-inning loss in which the Redbirds got up off the mat twice trailing late, only to lose. “We came back twice. That’s not the issue.”
Something surely is.
Defense certainly is one area that must improve. Thursday, the Royals scored a run in the first on a booted ground ball and an errant throw on a steal attempt for the first run of the game. The Cards are last in the National League in defense, with 62 errors, not even halfway through the season. Aledmys Diaz and Matt Carpenter own 23 of them, a telling statistic when baseball dictates a team must be strong up the middle. Overall, the infielders have committed nearly 50 errors, perhaps attesting to the significance of Jose Oquendo’s absence.
“We haven’t been consistent,” is the only vague reference Matheny will make to defensive play, continuing to profess confidence in the shockingly inept play. “We just have to work our way through it. When we put it all together, it will be fun to watch.” Unsaid is that it has not been fun to watch to date.
But defense alone is not the “it” that needs fixing.
Cardinal starters have made every scheduled start so far this year, an incredible feat, given that four of them were out for most or at least some of last year. Their effectiveness, especially early, is another matter. The starters have a combined ERA of 4.11, a full run worse than last year. The bullpen has been a little better and combined the staff’s ERA is 3.92, good enough for sixth in the National League. But the Cardinal staff has righted the ship, to no good result. Over a five-game stretch, the starters had five straight quality starts and the team lost all five games. While not as dominant as last year, overall the staff has been a little better than average. Room for improvement? Sure. But that improvement alone is not the “it” either.
Offense has been streaky and while power has come in abundance (106 home runs, second best in the NL), true, dependable offense has not been in evidence. The Chicago Cubs, for example, have scored slightly more runs than the Cardinals with a worse team batting average but have 11 more wins. How? A team ERA of 2.76 and 16 fewer errors certainly helps. But taking advantage of walks and errors is a factor that does not necessarily show up in statistics. Good teams do it. Average teams don’t.
“We’re not taking advantage of the base runners we’ve been given and we’ve been giving away bases,” Matheny said, an accurate summation.
Uneven play and a maddening ability to breakdown at the most crucial point in a game are not new. “It” was also evident in spring training when the Cards at one point went 11 games without a victory. True, it was just spring training. But, as one sportswriter pointed out, habits are formed and expectations honed in the spring, just like skills. If someone is looking for the genesis of “it,” starting there might be a good idea.
Fans are quick to blame Matheny and in some cases, his decisions have been curious, to be charitable. But he is the same manager that won three straight division titles, one pennant and 415 games in less than five years. It is unlikely that he alone could responsible for the nightly futility.
Perhaps there is no one thing that can be fixed, sending the Cardinals on their way to yet another division championship. Perhaps this is as good as it gets. As the season near the halfway point, that must be considered a possibility.
“We feel a sense of urgency today,” Matheny said before Friday night’s Milwaukee Brewers game. “And tomorrow we’ll feel it too. That’s the way we have to go about it from now on. There are adjustments that need to be made.”
“It” would seem to require a lot more than simple adjustments, whatever “it” is.
“We haven’t been consistent,” is the only vague reference Matheny will make to defensive play, continuing to profess confidence in the shockingly inept play. “We just have to work our way through it. When we put it all together, it will be fun to watch.”
Unsaid is that it has not been fun to watch to date.