Just when I thought that perhaps the pride of Cardinal Nation had found the fortitude to suck up the ignominy of their recent poor play and return the level such a gifted team should regularly operate at, they are swept by the Buccos. No slights are intended for Pittsburgh. They are playing better and showing some spark. Jim Tracy is moving this club in the right direction. That said, though, the Pirates are not a superior club to the Cardinals. The only way Pittsburgh is on par with the Cardinals is because the Cardinals permit them to be – which they just did.
Incredibly and undeservedly the Cardinals remain in first place by a game and a half. Their ranking exists only because no one else seems to want to win the National League Central Division. Sporting an uninspiring 28-36 record since June, the Cardinals have done everything in their very poor power to give away the division to the upstart Cincinnati Reds.
Problem is, the Reds don't seem to want the division either. Leading by four games over the Reds on June 2, the charitable Cardinals have bent over backwards to accommodate the Reds. That St. Louis still holds a 1.5 game lead is comically sad testament to the inept state of the division.
It's hard to identify one glaring weakness upon which to focus. Since June the Cardinals have been lousy offensively, defensively, and with their pitching. For sake of comparison, the pre-All-Star offense ranked second in the National League in total hits and batting average, and fourth in OPS. Post-All-Star they rank 11th in hits, 14th in OPS, and last – yep, I said last – in batting average. The team batting average plummeted from .279 to .253. With players of the offensive caliber of David Eckstein, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion, opposing pitchers should fear this club like no other. Now the line-up seems to be a relative walk in the park to the opposition.
How does the pre- and post-All Star break pitching stack up? Not surprisingly, about the same. The post-break Redbirds pitching staff is 15th among 16 NL teams in batting average against. Our pitchers are being lit up at a .286 clip. That's the worst in the NL Central. They are eighth in the league in ERA at 4.42 and 14th in strikeouts.
The cure offered so far? Ronnie Belliard for Hector Luna - a trade that continues to mystify. Jeff Weaver acquired and Sidney Ponson released? After a rough start, Weaver does seem to be doing well, but has to be wondering where the peerless Cardinal offense went. The organizational whistling past the graveyard is a non-starter. This team needs an infusion of life, spark, energy, and spirit. Will Mark Mulder provide that upon his return? Not likely.
With occasional exception, the Cardinals seem dispassionate. Not disinterested or unprofessional, but emotionally unalterable. They don't seem to get up for the big games, i.e., the Cubs series. They are exactly the same team game after game after game, with no highs or lows. Their ability to motivate and be motivated is suspect.
Usually one to belittle the value of team "chemistry", I'm curious about the air in the Cardinals locker room. In 2005, veteran good guy Reggie Sanders was there to provide both levity and leadership. It was Mike Matheny before that. I don't see anyone picking up that mantle this year. I thought that perhaps Jim Edmonds might fill that leadership role, but that doesn't appear to be happening. I'm not sure from whom that leadership should come, but it has to come from someone or the 2006 Cardinals will be remembered for their underachievement in the face of a vast quantity of talent.
The 2006 Cardinals may end up being one of the greatest motivational challenges in Tony La Russa's long and storied career as one of the best managers in the history of baseball. This team has the pedigree to be a post-season contender for a World Series crown, and La Russa's job is to move that talent toward that goal. He and Dave Duncan have their hands full, though, for now they must engage in team psychoanalysis, figuring out what it will take to steer this magnificent ship away from the looming iceberg of a post-season spent in front of the TV.
For all their enormous potential, the failure of the Redbirds to put it on display between the basepaths will leave Cardinal Nation deeply disappointed and wondering about the competence of Cardinal ownership and management. The new stadium is nice, but it has to be a house of winners. If it isn't, even global warming won't take the chill off a long and frosty St. Louis winter.
Rex Duncan can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.