St. Louis aims to move past struggles in second half
By Mike Bauman
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals believe they will have the kind of second half they normally expect to have. That includes victory, success and qualification for the postseason, all of what is by now the usual stuff for the Cards.
But as we speak, after a 5-2 loss to the Pirates on Tuesday night, the Cardinals are 43-40, nine games behind the Cubs in the National League Central. And the new, and at least temporarily, reduced status of the Cards was on display Tuesday at Busch Stadium.
There was a media gathering for the Cardinals' All-Star Game representative. Over the six previous seasons, the Redbirds had averaged five All-Stars per year, but on this day, there was only one.
Matt Carpenter, who has been an All-Star at second base and at third, has played at both positions this season. He is richly deserving of his third All-Star selection in the past four years. However, unless other Cardinals are named as replacements, this will be the first time since 2002 when only one Cards player (pitcher Matt Morris) was named to the NL All-Star squad.
Carpenter was asked how he would feel if he is St. Louis' only representative.
"I feel like it would be odd, and it would be disappointing," Carpenter said. "I'm certainly not the only deserving All-Star on our team."
The Cubs, meanwhile, will have an entire infield starting in the All-Star Game, not to mention a total of five starters and seven players on the squad. That might seem like a surplus of Cubs, but this can also be seen as something like their turn.
But that is not central to the Cardinals' current mindset.
"Our best baseball is yet to come," Carpenter said, evenly but firmly. "We believe that. We look forward to the second half."
You understand why the Cardinals could feel no other way. They have qualified for the postseason for five straight years, twice reaching the World Series, once winning it. They have won three straight NL Central titles. They have baseball's best regular-season record over the past three years -- 287 victories, including a 100-win campaign in 2015.
They have a backlog of confidence and achievement. So when Carpenter's remark about "our best baseball is yet to come," was relayed to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, he smiled a bit and said, "I've been pounding that drum for a long time."
Why should the rest of us expect, along with the Cardinals, that they will be significantly better in the second half?
"To me, it's just almost obvious that we have a powerful offense that is better than anybody expected," Matheny said. "We're just now starting to see the consistency in the starting rotation that more people expected. We're improving defensively and our bullpen, I believe, is going to be better than it's even been.
"So put those things together, and it's only a matter of time before a team takes a significant run."
That all makes sense, but none of it has occurred on a consistent basis in 2016. Tuesday night, an early lead was lost, the big hit was never delivered, the Cardinals' defense was atypically far from crisp.
"There's a whole different level that we have defensively," Matheny said. "And I think our guys see it the same way."
The 2015 Cardinals won 100 games, though they were 11th in the league in runs scored. They had the rest of the game mastered, checking in with a Major League-best team ERA of 2.94.
This year, the Cardinals are second in the NL in runs scored, and, in fact, have a nifty run-differential of plus 77. But they are sixth in team ERA, giving up nearly one more earned run per game than they did last season.
In recent years, the Cardinals have been better than this. So they should be better than this now, right?
"We haven't really been able to get a good big winning streak going," Mike Leake, Tuesday night's losing pitcher, said. "It hasn't really gotten to that point for us. It's unfortunate so far. Hopefully we can do it. But it's tough. It's tough to not get in a rhythm."
There is still time to be consistently Cardinal-like, but even for this franchise, that level is not guaranteed. It has to be done, not simply discussed.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.