DETROIT -- The cushy comforts that came with the Cardinals have slowly eroded around Mike Matheny, almost from the day he accepted the club's skipper position. The erosion began when veteran pitching coach Dave Duncan was forced to take a leave of absence to tend to his ailing wife, continued when Chris Carpenter's shoulder woes cropped up in spring camp and has heightened with the extended in-season absences of Lance Berkman, Jon Jay and Jaime Garcia. So the Cards club Matheny inherited was very different from the one in his current possession. And while such attrition can unfortunately be part of the picture in a 162-game season, it's a hefty hurdle for a first-time skipper, and it's coupled, in this case, with the altering effects of an uncertain bullpen.
In other words, Matheny's rookie-year resolve has already been tested in a big way. The 20-11 start that conjured up memories of 2011's finish (even the numbers lined up) has given way to a 15-24 stretch of sustained suffering, extended by the series loss here at Comerica Park. Somebody asked Matheny if Thursday's extra-inning defeat was a tough loss. "They all are," he responded. And they're mounting, just like that injury tally. But what Matheny won't allow is for himself or any of his players to use the injuries as a crutch. "To me," Matheny said, "you define character by adversity, how you dig in and play the game the right way, regardless of what happens. It's an opportunity for everybody else to take more of a leadership role. We've seen some guys take advantage of it and others not so much. That's part of the challenge when you do get your chemistry or just your group disrupted by [injuries]." Good news is coming on the injury front, as outfielders Jay (right shoulder sprain) and Matt Carpenter (strained oblique) could be back from the DL as soon as this weekend. Beyond that, Chris Carpenter has begun throwing bullpen sessions, eyeing a July return to the rotation, and a major bullet was dodged when Berkman's knee surgery revealed only a partial meniscus tear, meaning he could be back by the end of July, rather than having his season -- and career -- in jeopardy. The problem, though, with relying on injury returns to spark a sagging club is that new ailments or severe setbacks can always be lurking around the corner. It's a false premise to assume that all will be right in the Cardinals' world once the transaction wire starts reporting more positive news. After all, some of the Cards' concerns revolve around able bodies, too. If Baseball Reference's Pythagorean won-loss records, a calculation based off a club's runs scored and runs allowed, can be given any weight (and really, what fun is baseball if Pythagoras isn't involved?), then it can be argued that St. Louis ought to be at least five wins ahead of its actual pace. What should we read into that? Well, it's pretty simple, really. There has been some underachievement in the lineup, where run production has dropped precipitously the past month, and there is uncertainty in the bullpen, which was such a team strength down the stretch last season. It's the reason the Cards have been on the wrong side of too many one-run games. "You never know which win is going to be the one that sets you on a streak," Matheny said. "We really haven't had that streak." It will be difficult to put that streak together unless Rafael Furcal gets going again in the leadoff spot. The correlation between Furcal's falloff from his April/May successes (.333 average, .391 OBP) and the Cards' declining production (they're averaging 3.5 runs per game in June after a 5.3 average in the season's first two months) is obvious. As it stands, the 34-year-old Furcal is hitting .171 this month, and Matheny said fatigue is a factor. "We were riding him hard," Matheny said. "Then fatigue doesn't help when you're trying to get back to being right mechanically or mentally." Knowing when to loosen the reins is part of the learning process for Matheny, and that process is the kind of thing even a natural-born leader must endure. For Matheny, the process is complicated by the 'pen. Some of his maneuverings have come into question (a common occurrence when for any skipper when a club is struggling), but he hasn't exactly had a stash of steadiness upon which to rely. Closer Jason Motte doesn't have the strikeout rate (8.8 per nine innings) to match those high-90s velo readings, and he's served up five home runs. Marc Rzepczynski (5.47 ERA) hasn't been the lock-down lefty every bullpen needs. Right-hander Kyle McClellan is out with an injured elbow until at least August. Veterans J.C. Romero and Scott Linebrink were both ineffective and released, and the Cards have missed the stable veteran presence Octavio Dotel provided last year. It's become clear that the Cards' road to October will once again have to feature in-season bullpen augmentation, lest it lead to a dead end. For now, an inconsistent relief corps is one of many challenges faced by Matheny. "There's a laundry list of greatest challenges," he said. "The bullpen is just one of them." Matheny said he doesn't look at the standings. Not in June. If he did, he'd no doubt be disappointed by where the Cards stand but perhaps heartened that they haven't been buried by this stretch of shaky play. "We control our destiny by the way we go out and play the game," he said. "We're just not playing the way we can play, and the record indicates it." Because of injuries in some areas and ineffectiveness in some others, this is not exactly the team Matheny expected to inherit. But it's still a team with the talent to get where it wants to go, and it will be a big test of the rookie skipper and his staff to guide that path.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.