Spoiled by years of excellence and heart-stopping late season runs, Cardinal fans are growing restless with the 2016 Redbirds. The team has an unfamiliar look characterized by errors, base running gaffes, bad decisions, perplexing lineups and the disturbing tendency to give away games late.
“They’ll put it all together and when they do it will be fun to watch,” said an unconvincing Mike Matheny after yet another home loss last month. But as the season progresses toward the dismal conclusion that Busch Stadium may be dark in October, fans cling to the leavening notion that just one solid run could put them right back in the hunt. “There’s still time,” players, coaches and fans say, an unusual passage to recite for a team that has been so dominant.
But, as the saying goes, “it is what it is” and what it is, is not encouraging. Nonetheless, the 2006 Cardinals seemed destined to watch the postseason on television and . . . well, you know the rest.
Here are five things the Redbirds must start doing NOW if they are to have any shot at postseason.
1). Win at home. If winning baseball is playing solid defense, pitching well and hitting with men on base, that should not be affected by the geographical location of the game. But historically, since Abner Doubleday marked off 90 feet on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ, it has. The formula known to every baseball fan is a team must be .500 on the road and dominate at home. Entering Saturday’s game, the Cardinals are 19-27 at home and 27-16 on the road. At one point the Cardinals flirted with tying the all-time home losing streak. While Matheny was clearly agitated with the attention being paid that dubious mark, it is telling that the Redbirds cannot seem to play well at home. They hit better on the road (.267 vs. .256) and pitch better too (ERA of 3.72 vs. 4.04). Why can’t the Cards play well in the loving bosom of Busch Stadium? Unknowable.
2). The bullpen has to be waaaay better, assuming, of course, that they CAN be better. As heartbreaking as late losses can be for fans, players and starting pitchers who threw 100+ wonderful pitches only to see it turn to dust, imagine for a second wearing #22 and having to decide which ineffective reliever to insert in a close ball game. Let’s not pick on any one of them because at one time or another, all of them have been a rolling Dumpster fire. Fans tend to focus on Trevor Rosenthal since he was lights out, pack up the bats and start the bus for the last few years. But clearly, the magic pixie dust is gone. He can no longer get anyone out. At all. To paraphrase Cardinal fan Will Leitch, “Gotta get Rosie right.”
3). Matt Holliday may not get going and it’s time to face that fact. Holliday has been a consistent, reliable performer (when healthy) over the course of his Cardinal career. That, mercifully, is coming to a close. Fans loved to see his powerful, vicious swing ripping shots all over the field like bullets. At age 35, those weeks when he could carry the team are pleasant memories. He is hitting .237 for the year and only .171 at home. That is not acceptable for a player Matheny insists must be in the lineup every night.
4). Find a lineup that they can live (or die) with and stop penciling in anybody-but-Matt-Adams at first base. Adams is hitting .358 with runners in scoring position and has 10 home runs for the year. He is an excellent fielder and has done nothing that anyone is aware of to deserve being so thoroughly disregarded. In spring training he was told to work on taking balls the other way against lefties. He has. He is hitting .314 against left-handers this season. Holliday is hitting .202 against lefties. Yet Holliday, Jedd Gyorko, Matt Carpenter, Brandon Moss and Yadier Molina have all played first base instead of Adams. Duh.
5). Find a dependable offensive attack, which may be linked to #4. An inconsistent lineup produces inconsistent results. So far Matheny has tried to construct a lineup that matches a player’s skills to whoever is pitching with poor results. Whether that is the issue, poor scouting reports, bad hitting advice or just the whimsy of the baseball gods, this Cardinal team cannot seem to mount a consistent offense, save Stephen Piscotty, Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz. Look at the stats and the mystery deepens. The Cards hit .295 with men in scoring position and .338 with bases loaded, both well above the team average. They have 121 home runs. But on the season, cumulatively, the #3 spot has hit .249 and the clean-up man .222. Most telling is this stat: They are 21-8 in blow-out games (5+ runs) and 7-16 in one run games.