The rule is simple: If you give a pro an inch, he or she will take a foot. For the St. Louis Cardinals, this has been a dire fact for the past year as they battle to find their footing early on in the 2017 season.
After 25 games, one can start taking a measure of what a team is designed to do over the course of 162 games. You don't just turn on good fundamentals like you take your iPhone out of a deep sleep in the morning. In professional sports, it doesn't work that way.
The Cardinals are beating themselves in a number of ways while giving the other team plenty of opportunities to step up in a game or run away with it. Imagine the opposing team coming out onto the field and seeing four neon light boxes on the scoreboard informing them that they have four outs instead of three, or that your opponent will be sure to run into an out or two within the course of the game. A team can't contend this way or hope to win 80 games.
Case in point: In Monday night's game during the sixth inning, Kolten Wong got a hit ahead of a Matt Adams dumping single into the right center field gap. Wong got a good jump, showing aggression as he turned the corner at second and headed to third, where he took the hard turn towards home. Then he fell down. The Milwaukee Brewers no longer worried about Adams, and got Wong in a run down between third and home. Inning over.
Later in the game, during the 10th inning, Wong dropped a soft line drive hit right at him near second base, and then he threw a ball towards Matt Carpenter that pulled the bearded one off the bag. Wong was threatening Tommy John's record for most errors on one single play. He should have caught the line drive or at least made the throw to first base.
But wait a minute, should Carp have come off the bag? Remember last week, where Jose Martinez didn't come off the bag and an errant Aledmys Diaz throw allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to win a game. While it's a valuable point, is it too much to ask for Wong and Diaz to throw the ball to the man's chest? Is that terrible to ask a highly paid professional baseball player to make a good throw to first? With Wong having all the experience out of the two players, I'd expect him to make the play. Instead, he made three key mistakes last night, and thus negated his game tying seeing eye single up the middle in the eighth inning to tie the game.
These mental and physical mistakes are the exact thing killing the Cardinals chances of being a competent playoff team. Despite 220 home runs last year, the Cards didn't make the playoffs due to sloppy fundamentals. A lack of alert baseball IQ at all times on a baseball field. Human beings make mistakes, but professionals shouldn't make so many mistakes in a single game.
It didn't help that Wong fell down past third, got up, and stood there and shrugged his shoulders before actually decided to engage in a little hot box. For years, I ranted about the mental fragility of Jaime Garcia, and how sometimes he just didn't seem ready to compete. For the most part, I was wrong about Garcia. He was simply hurt so often that I have a feeling it was a daily battle against his own anatomy and physiology to endure. Wong is a different story; the kid hasn't been hurt for a long period of time yet in his Major League career. When will he put it all together? When will a nice two week stretch turn into a whole season? Asking from the cheap seats for a friend.
The Cardinals won't be able to blast their way to as many wins as they did in 2016, but last night they hit four home runs and lost. They tried to outslug their opponents and failed. The story hasn't changed much from last summer.
Coming into play today, the Cardinals rank 20th in the Majors in runs scored, 14th in batting average, 11th in on base percentage, and 12th in slugging percentage. When it comes to National League ranking, they are near the back of the line. Their pitching is middle of the pack as well except when it comes to quality starts (ninth), but six inning bursts only get you so far in a long season.
Sooner or later, someone on the team is going to have to change their ability to minimize damage outside of the batters box. When it comes to hitting, a player is what he is as the season begins with minor adjustments thrown in. A player in the field is also pretty much set as a skill level when the season begins. However, cutting down on mental errors on the bases and making the routine plays could flip a few games your way.
I don't have to tell you the Cardinals are second worst defensive team in the Majors (thank you Pittsburgh and Milwaukee) and that their situational hitting is rubbish this season. That is becoming a redundant mantra in the city of St. Louis. As the game begins and the excitement begins, one will wonder-how will the Cards beat themselves tonight? What will do it?
If Seung-hwan Oh isn't as effective late in games and Matt Bowman's arm falls off in June, can the Cards win as many games as last year? As I previously mentioned, the power won't be stocked up like last year. Without a big trade, how will the Cardinals make up for a deficiency that seemingly can't be fixed.
For a team that plays so many close games and will have to fight for every win this year, the fundamental set in stone baseball skills shouldn't be a problem, but continue to be as the opposition pushes back further. Going into the season, the Cubs were supposed to be the big bully in the division. Now, the Brewers are pushing back as well as the Cincinnati Reds and Pirates. The job has grown more difficult instead of more precise.
One can say those are bad teams and should be handled, but let me add this one caveat: How good of a team are the St. Louis Cardinals this year?
At 12-13 and leaking fundamental oil as the weeks pass by without much improvement, prepare to struggle with this question all season long:
Who are the Cardinals this year and are they any good?