(KMOV.com) — No team is ever going to complain about scoring a sweep in a three-game series, no matter how or when it comes. The reality of the situation for the Cardinals, though, is that their triumph over the Marlins earlier this week at Busch Stadium only served as a temporary reprieve to the problems that still exist within the club’s roster.
St. Louis managed to dispose of Miami for three straight to continue an encouraging trend line for the Cardinals this season against particularly bad opponents. Against teams with a current win percentage below .450, the Cardinals are 17-1 on the year, having decimated the likes of inferior clubs in the Marlins (6-0), Pirates (5-0), and Rockies (3-0) and D-backs (3-1) to pad their own winning percentage. Despite that overwhelming success against bad teams, however, a shutout loss to the Braves Thursday dropped the Cardinals back down to just one game over .500 at 35-34 for the year.
You don’t need to be a math major to know what that says about St. Louis’ performance in 2021 against even semi-competent opposing clubs. In contrast to their .944 winning percentage against the bottom-barrel teams, the Cardinals are 18-33 on the season against teams on the upside of the .450 winning percentage mark. That’s a .353 winning percentage against such teams.
In other words, when facing teams who are within even a sniffing distance of a .500 record, the Cardinals basically turn into the Pirates (Pittsburgh’s winning percentage on the full season is .343).
Why is that? Why can’t the Cardinals, a club with designs on being a championship contender, play better against other teams with similar expectations?
Even in their most recent sweep of the lowly Marlins, the Cardinals won the games by the slimmest of margins. St. Louis twice needed walk-off heroics to finish off the Fish. For the series, the Cardinals scored a grand total of seven runs. Factoring in their dormant outing against Atlanta’s Charlie Morton Thursday, the Cardinals have mustered just nine runs across their previous six games—a scoring average of 1.5 runs per game.
“It’s a very reasonable question, I get it,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt responded Thursday to a reporter’s earnest inquiry as to how the Cardinals might be able to adjust to achieve more consistent offensive productivity. Beyond the lineup’s lagging over the past week, the Cardinals rank in the bottom third of the league in numerous season-long offensive categories: 28th in batting average, 24th in OPS and tied for 20th in total runs scored.
“We’ve got a lengthy lineup and we’ve faced some tough pitching,” Shildt continued. “You know, we won three out of our last four against some tough pitching, so I’d rather not alibi the fact that we haven’t been as consistent. But I don’t know what more to really tell you. Look, if I had a real clear answer to it with the 30-something years of baseball I’ve been in, I’d be doing it, and our staff and our players. I can just tell you: the preparation and the approach is there. We’d love to have more results. I’m sure everyone that’s following our club would like that. I don’t know what else you can expect me to do.”
Shildt didn’t sound defiant in the exchange, but he was at a loss. What’s a manager to do when his team’s stretch of underperformance extends for as long as this one has—particularly for an offense that added Nolan Arenado to beef up the unit in the off-season? A unit that, frankly, hasn’t been hammered by injuries in the same way the pitching staff had been to justify—or at least, to help explain—the struggles of that group prior to this most recent turn through the rotation.
“I can’t sit here and have my head in the sand, proverbially,” Shildt said. “But we’ve got what we have. We feel like we’re using it the best we can. It’s really a matter of—I mean, the guy was good tonight… That’s part of it. Morton pitched in the playoffs and pitched well in big games. Sometimes you really do have to say the other team has been effective, as well.”
Shildt’s point is a fair one; sometimes, capable opponents find ways to enjoy effective efforts against your team. This is the big leagues and everyone is striving toward the same goals. It's understandable that you’re not always going to get the better of an opponent who is intent upon shutting you down. So far this season, however, the Cardinals have been on the wrong side of the ‘tip your cap’ routine too frequently—particularly against quality teams.
The Cardinals manager alluded to it in his comments Thursday, but at some point, you have what you have. Shildt manages the roster he’s given and when so many of your core players are falling short of expectations simultaneously, excessive lineup tweaking can feel like rearranging the deck chairs, so to speak. The Cardinals are in the midst of Year Three of the Jeff Albert Experience and it’s fair wonder how the front office evaluates the progress of the offense following Albert’s spearheading an organizational overhaul of the team’s approach to hitting, which began with his hiring following the 2018 campaign.
Another area of reflection for John Mozeliak and company at present should be identifying effective and attainable means by which they can supplement the club’s championship aspirations ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. The team’s executives might view the recent turnaround of the starting rotation to fuel the notion that the Cardinals can muddle along with what they have on that front until possible reinforcements—like Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas—arrive in August.
That mindset may ring especially true given Mozeliak’s view on the current difficulties of navigating the pitching trade market.
"Even if, for example, we want to do something, that doesn't mean we can," Mozeliak told Tom Ackerman on KMOX last Sunday. "Right now, I would imagine if you're trying to chase starting pitching, you're going to find the price really high. We just have to decide... what's our stomach for those price points?"
Given this week’s offensive woes, though, the pressing question for the Cardinals appears to be uncertainty over how a turnaround at the plate could manifest. For the most part, St. Louis is still riding the horses it entered the year expecting to have in its lineup—only Harrison Bader presently sits on the injured list among the Cardinals’ anticipated starting position players. Still, the team is suffering from missed expectations across the board, with regulars Paul DeJong (.610 OPS), Tommy Edman (.683), Paul Goldschmidt (.720 OPS) and even Nolan Arenado (.809 OPS) currently falling short of their career norms. Others whose numbers remain sturdy due to strong early-season efforts—like Yadier Molina and Dylan Carlson—have endured tougher sledding in June.
In the midst of a collective slump, answers can be difficult to come by—it’s not realistic to replace half the team’s lineup via trade or internal options. That’s especially true when the majority of the players struggling are core members of the team’s plans for the present and future. Arenado, for instance, is struggling through an 0-for-15 in his last four games. Those kinds of stretches inevitably take place over the course of a long season, but Arenado has seemed at times to wear the frustrations of a slump on his sleeve following some of his outs during the Marlins series.
The Cardinals manager, understandably, never doubts for a moment that a player of Arenado's renowned caliber is always just around the corner from reverting back to his customary form.
"I don't think Nolan Arenado's confidence has waned at all," Shildt said ahead of Friday's game in Atlanta. "I know it hasn't for me. I think you see a passionate player that likes to play the game and when he doesn't do well, can be frustrated about it. I don't think that's anything new to his style of play. That's one of the reasons that makes him such a good player because he cares so darn much and is so passionate and competitive. But I don't think any frustration you see is anything that tells, outwardly, that he's lost any confidence at all. He wants to perform for the team and when he doesn't, he gets frustrated and I respect the fact that he cares that much.
"I don't think there's any doubt in his mind, nor mine, for sure, that when he gets that next opportunity, he's ready for it and ready to be excellent."
It's clear that Shildt and the rest of the Cardinals intend to ride through this stretch and rally around the guys in that clubhouse. Publicly expressed confidence from the manager and the players hasn’t waned—they still believe in their group’s ability to turn things around and find the consistency for which they have longed this season. The pedigree of the players in the Cardinals lineup is substantial. But as the summer heats up, so too grows the sample size of underperformance from those same names.
It’s been described that hope isn’t an ideal strategy for winning baseball games. As the Cardinals aim to improve their circumstances offensively, they are left with little choice but to lean heavily into it.
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