When it comes to a baseball team struggling and what it means to the rest of the season, the answer will always be relative to what is happening around them. When the Cards lose 13 of 17 games and sunk to fourth in the National League Central Division, hope was heading out of town-and it's easy to come to that conclusion with the style of play shown so far in 2017.
Here's the crazy part: The Cards have not been eliminated from the playoff just yet.
Sloppy defense, soft hitting, no finish at the plate, and not enough pitching to withstand the erratic nature are the usual suspects for this team's downfall. An utter lack of fundamentals was the root of the issue, and for the first time in his tenure as General Manager, John Mozeliak made a coaching change during the season. No, Mike Matheny wasn't given his walking papers, but he was shown the room where the hot seat exists. Third base Chris Maloney was outrighted along with Jhonny Peralta, and Mike Shildt and Mark Budaska were elevated along with Ron "Pop" Warner.
Was it enough? No, but it's a start. The Cardinals have responded by beating the lowly Philadelphia Phillies this weekend, but the larger test rests on a four game set with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cards have played the part of Rocky Balboa from the fourth installment in the franchise, getting knocked down early and often, only to rise up a bit afterwards. After starting 3-9, the Cards won nine of their next twelve games, only to lose nine of the next twelve.
Before Sunday's finale, the Cards are 28-32, which is good for fourth place in the division. But take a look around the room, and nobody is flying high just yet.
The Cubs didn't do much with their sweep of the Cardinals, having lost four in a row to fall below .500 again. The Brewers lost Saturday, loosening their stranglehold on the division lead. Both the Brewers and Reds are 5-5 in their last ten games, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are basically hanging out in the cellar with no intentions of fighting back.
Unlike last season, there is no clear dog to pin a hat on in this race. The Cubs were running away with the division last June, but this year their starting pitching and defense are hindering their ability to repeat. General manager Theo Epstein won't let that last for long, but a huge trade isn't on the horizon for the payroll packed North Siders. They are who a victim of fallback motion in their projections.
What do the Cardinals need to do in order to climb back into this race? How about a smart nine instead of a hard nine? Hustle and hard work are great, but if there's no polish at the end of it, the string won't give a team any slack in the heat of a contested season. So let's look at it:
Cut down on the errors. At the start of Saturday's game, two Cards were picked off first base. Tommy Pham suffered the most embarrassing pickoff of all time, not even getting close to the bag before being tagged. A throw from the left side of the infield sailed over Matt Carpenter's head at first base. Friday, Kolten Wong botched another easy grounder, and that came after missing a strong throw from Tommy Pham at second base. The Cards give the other team too many outs. Cut it out.
Matt Carpenter revival. Let's stop trying to figure out why he can only hit consistently in the leadoff role. Some things don't make sense, and in the world of baseball, that number gets tripled quite easily. Carpenter has responded with hits. The average has risen from .209 to .222. and the slugging is at .429. When Carpenter hits well, the rest of the lineup seems to follow. Carpenter has only collected nine multi-hit games, which is extremely low for the middle of June. If he continues to hit, the Cards will score. Carp leads this offense, not Dexter Fowler.
Support Carlos Martinez. The young ace has been exactly what the doctor ordered for the Cards despite a lack of run support. Martinez has career lows in WHIP, K:BB, and opponent batting average. He's whiffing batters, and challenging Clayton Kershaw for NL league leader totals in strikeouts. The problem is that El Gallo still can't be cloned. Adam Wainwright was brilliant for four starts, but got blistered in Cincinnati. Can he recover today?
Mike Leake has retracted back to Leake of old, and Michael Wacha's days in the rotation seem to be numbered with his effectiveness as of late. When an opposing lineup smacks you around the third time through, things are trending down. Lance Lynn needs to pitch more innings as well. The rotation has been impressive, but some problems are arising.
Brett Cecil simply can't pitch in close games. The four runs allowed on June 7 were the first earned runs allowed since May 12, but trusting this guy is hard to do with a team in free fall. Tyler Lyons and the soon to arrive Marco Gonzales are better options.
Shildt can simply be not as bad as Maloney, and the Cards will earn runs back on the bases. No one is putting all the blame on the third base coach, but Maloney was a signature blend of bad.
Hitting with runners in scoring position. What was once a key ingredient for an effective attack has turned into a problem. The Cards can get on base, but can't find their way home. Finishers like Stephen Piscotty and Aledmys Diaz have to do their part to help Jedd Gyorko. Getting the big hit has eluded this team. Also being able to spread their scoring over 3-4 innings instead of 1-2 is key.
More Trevor Rosenthal. I'm not saying yank Seung-hwan Oh just yet, but man Rosenthal looks as good, if not better, than he was in 2015. When you can go from 102 mph to the mid 80's with movement, hitters don't have a chance. Oh was good for Rosenthal's mental rehab, but it looks like the Lees Summit, Kansas City native may be closing games by August or pitching elsewhere.
Stop worrying about Jose Oquendo coming back to this team, because it's not happening this season. Oquendo wants to manage, but I'm sure he doesn't want to have the job drop down into his lap in the middle of a blowout season. Add to the situation that his knee isn't ready to take the wear and tear of a Major League season, and this has "wait until 2018" written all over it.
Matheny got a warning with the recent coaching changes. If he doesn't pull it together, Thanksgiving may get interesting. For now, it's Matheny's ship. Don't think Mozeliak is going to pull the plug so quickly about his protege. A man he groomed for the job.
The Cards have a chance to win this division, partly due to the fact that no one else is particularly keen on driving off with it. The Cards can play better baseball between now and July 31, and give Mozeliak a reason to buy instead of sell. This ownership doesn't do complete rebuilds, so if a major move can push this team closer to the playoffs, they will do it. This is a stepping forward organization.
While all signs have pointed towards a dreadful 75 win season the past month, the Cards are still in the fight. The wildcard is more of a long shot than the division, so the Cards have to react quick.
What are they going to do about it? After four with Milwaukee, a ten game stretch against barely good or bad teams starts with Baltimore before Arizona and Washington step up to test the Birds.
It's not early anymore; the Birds have to respond to the charge from Mozeliak by showing 2017 isn't a waste.