Things change fast in baseball. It's a sport that fits snugly into the timeless Frank Sinatra tune, "That's Life."
You can be flying high in April, shot down in May, but you will be looking to change that tune in June. What happens when you are looking to change the tune in August?
The St. Louis Cardinals sure were flying high in July. After enduring two months of uneven and mostly poor play, they enjoyed a resurgence that helped them start the first day of August in first place. They cleared a four-game deficit in the National League Central Division in four weeks, and after taking a series from the Chicago Cubs, were poised to launch further ahead.
And then they stumbled and fell hard. They entered Aug. 2 carrying a one-game lead over the Cubs, but have gone 0-5 since, falling to four games behind Chicago in the process. Let's take a hard look at what is going wrong with this team, because it doesn't take a microscope to identify what ails the Birds.
5) Strength of Schedule
It's not hard for an ailing team to find the required meds when the schedule is stuffed with the San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks: teams that are determined to merely keep their head above water and not embarrass themselves in front of the fans.
Once the calendar flipped and teams like the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers were staring down the Birds in the face, things changed. The easy street was closed and the bumpy, pothole-riddled one opened up issues like run prevention, production and overall style of play. Teams like the Dodgers will punch you in the jaw early and maintain the pressure while lowly squads like the Reds will hope for a brawl.
4) The bats are asleep again
One of the biggest reasons the team impressed in July was the lineup putting up four or more runs. The Cardinals scored four runs or more in 16 July games, flipping the script on Jeff Albert's philosophy and gaining confidence along the way. This month, the team has scored four or more runs just once in six games. Plate discipline is a big issue, with the team striking out a ton, drawing fewer walks and generating less power.
Only Kolten Wong has maintained a healthy bat throughout the slump. Matt Carpenter returned without leaving an impression before finding himself hurt again. Marcell Ozuna had a home run Wednesday, but will need time. Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, and Paul DeJong are inconsistent at best. The pitching was bending without breaking in the first three months of the season, receiving little run support. That has returned. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty both pitched gems in Los Angeles without a reward or ounce of run support.
If that continues, cancel October.
Glaring Statistic: The Cardinals are hitting .247 with runners in scoring position and carry an overall .730 OPS in the vital situation, ranking 27th in MLB this year.
3) Missing Gold
Speaking of a leaking offense -- the big gun, Paul Goldschmidt, has fallen silent in August. After winning player of the week/month honors in July and seemingly rescuing a disappointing season, the former D-Back has lost it at the plate again. Maybe it's the better pitching, or just a troubling season finding its legs again. He's just 3-23 in August with eight strikeouts and one extra base hit. He slugged .725 in July, and has a flat mark of .174 this month. Small sample sizing here, but it's apparent he's run into a bad way again. The swings aren't great, and he's getting fooled.
Goldschmidt lined out a couple times on Wednesday, but how long can you put some bad luck into a season that hasn't lived up to standards? I don't care about other players. Goldschmidt is a highly-paid slugger who has to set the tone. He is the star in this group, and he's not doing his job. Cardinal luck I guess.
2) Inaction from the front office
You got it. I'm not shutting up about this. While other teams improved their rosters and deepened their depth, the Cardinals stood frustratingly still on deadline day. The starting pitching will wear down and need innings. Perhaps a utility bat could have been in order, because Yairo Munoz and Tommy Edman are not the answers. The Cardinals, who challenged the team to play better, responded to a great July by watching the phone ring.
And you know other teams called Mozeliak and Michael Girsch. Don't play dumb, because you can't pull it off. They can't evaluate talent and they are too proud of their prospects and young players. When will it stop?
1) Shildt managing taking an ugly turn
I am going to sit here and believe the manager does indeed make out the lineup card, and not someone above his pay grade. Someone has to check Shildt on his lineups, because as I write this, a card with Edman in right field is in place for tonight. Edman isn't an outfielder, yet he's starting over the team's No. 9 prospect, Lane Thomas. He's starting over Randy Arozarena, who is shredding Pacific Coast League pitching in Memphis. The lineups, overall game management and decision-making are polar opposites of the bold, risk-taking moves from Shildt a year ago.
The more he settles into the job, the more I see shades of Mike Matheny in that dugout. The same timid, overly trustworthy and generally aloof management. It all makes me stand back and wish for a universe where the Cardinals didn't worry about pain medication (reportedly) and hired Terry Francona. Too bad.
The Cardinals will need to go 30-19 to match their 88 win total from 2018, which may not even get them into the playoffs. It's the fourth year in a row where money is spent, yet the decision-making, hunger to improve, prospect cultivation and, oddly enough, prospect mishandling, are dragging this team down to average status.
It's like I've been writing the same article for years. Search for the positive, holding it up for as long as you can until the negative reappears.
The Cardinals are stuck in another up and down season, with more down this time around. The August spark isn't there. No reinforcements are coming. What will this team do to rediscover their winning ways?
If you have a clue, pass it on.