St. Louis Cardinals dealing with early season losses

St. Louis Cardinals dealing with early season losses

CHICAGO — When the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves off to their worst 35-game start in 50 years, baseball experts inside and outside their clubhouse offered explanations. The list of hypotheses was long and varied, ranging from the number of players the Cardinals lent to World Baseball Classic teams to the impact the shift was having on their contact-first starting rotation. Their season-opening slump was so bad that even theories posed in jest warranted consideration.

For example, when veteran Adam Wainwright stood up and held what amounted to a state-of-the-union news conference in the visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field on Monday afternoon, a reporter suggested that Wainwright opening the season on the injured list might have been the cause.

“Well, I mean, that’s the obvious answer,” Wainwright joked. Not everyone in the Cardinals clubhouse could joke like that about a stretch like this one, which left the favorites to win the National League Central last in the division. But Wainwright has been here before — not here, exactly, because since he debuted in 2005 the Cardinals never once fell 14 games under .500. But he has been here, in this clubhouse, long enough to speak for the room.

“The ball kept rolling and compounding upon itself and before you knew it, it was in this place where it was almost like we were — seemingly, watching from 3,000 miles away — it seemed like it was almost ready and looking for bad things to happen instead of creating good things,” Wainwright said. “And that’s just a trait of what happens when you go through slides like that. It’s just what happens. You don’t want it to, but that mentality creeps in.”

What is Willson Contreras doing wrong? The Cardinals just won’t say.

For the Cardinals, that mentality more bludgeoned its way in than crept quietly, stirring up tensions in a veteran clubhouse that should know better. The Cardinals lost 11 straight series openers. They lost eight games in a row entering this week, their longest losing streak since 2016. They showed up for their first series against the archrival Chicago Cubs with the worst record in the National League.

The tension manifested in many ways, in some testy exchanges between players and reporters, in starter Jack Flaherty’s comments about the team’s inability to put hitters away on two strikes, in some late-game disappointments and in the inescapable sense that winning just one game would take the effort some teams exerted in winning 10.

“Honestly, it felt like we were just going to have to wait it out,” Cardinals Manager Oli Marmol said. “Just because of the way some of the games were going, it wasn’t like one like one glaring thing that you can just put your hand on and say we need to address this.”

These MLB teammates have a road trip ritual: Appreciating the view

Marmol was speaking in the past tense Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, because by then, his Cardinals had won three straight games, their longest winning streak of the season, the dust kicked up by their collective anxiety seemingly settled.

Because while Marmol was firm that nothing specific had derailed his team, the organization had kicked up chaos when it decided to address something going on with catcher Willson Contreras, to whom the Cardinals committed nearly $88 million and five years this winter.

The day Wainwright returned from the injured list as a potential stabilizing force, the Cardinals announced that they had called up a third catcher, then stunned the baseball world when they explained that Contreras would no longer be their starting catcher for the foreseeable future. From the outside, the move looked like scapegoating, like the panicked reaction of a too-proud franchise.

Contreras and Marmol eventually clarified that the demotion wasn’t permanent, but rather a way to speed up some adjustments they felt Contreras — a three-time all-star and World Series winner — still needed to make. By then, they had already had to justify plenty of unpopular decisions, most notably the choice to demote exciting prospect Jordan Walker to Class AAA because they didn’t have room in their major league outfield. At the time, their outfielders owned an OPS of .713. They own a .656 OPS since.

Analysis: This baseball season, home field has barely been an advantage

Decisions like those are organizational, rather than managerial. Marmol said that whatever it looked like from the outside, he did his best not to tinker, not to try to push every possible button or make some dramatic speech.

“This group doesn’t need to hear the ‘Try harder, you gotta lock in, you need to focus.’ Who in there needs to focus?” Marmol said. “They all are extremely professional. They have really good routines. They don’t waver from it. They’re ultracompetitive. And if there’s a flaw, it’s that they care too much.”

It’s possible there are other flaws, though one can’t blame a manager for not pointing them out one by one. And Marmol isn’t delusional: the Cardinals looked built to win the un-intimidating NL Central before the season, and they still do. But something has obviously gone wrong.

One theory was that the Cardinals, who sent more key players to the WBC than any team in baseball, then watched many of those key players play into the championship game, were more fatigued than other teams — that their routine had been thrown off, somehow. For example: Third baseman Nolan Arenado, who played for Team USA into the title game, is hitting just .233 with an OPS some 250 points below his career average.

But first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who was also on that WBC team, is hitting .306 with a .933 OPS. Japan star Lars Nootbaar is hitting .289. Much like in years without a preseason tournament, some players start hot. Other players start cold. That applies to pitchers, too, and the Cardinals sent plenty of them to the WBC. But the only tie anyone in the Cardinals clubhouse drew between their rotation’s struggles and the tournament was that starters were away from camp instead of gaining rapport with Contreras.

Buckner: Vida Blue gave all of himself. He deserved more in return.

A more mathematically grounded hypothesis is that the Cardinals’ starting rotation is not built for a world without shifting. For multiple seasons now, the Cardinals have relied on a starting rotation that is less focused on swing-and-miss than those of other contenders, betting on their elite infield defense to help pitchers prone to inducing soft contact. But this year, only one starting rotation in baseball has allowed a higher batting average on balls in play than St. Louis. Only three rotations have induced a higher percentage of groundballs. Perhaps relatedly, only six rotations have a higher ERA.

“I know we particularly have had some rough luck [without the shift]. But I think in baseball, things tend to even out,” starter Miles Mikolas said. “It’s just tough when things don’t go your way early in the season. Because I remember stretches last year with the shift where it felt like every hit I gave up was where we didn’t have someone. This year, it’s like ‘Man, we would have had someone there last year.’ Next month, everyone will be hitting the ball where they’re supposed to.”

The other theory, supported by the Contreras chaos, is that the Cardinals needed longer than they wanted to adjust to life without Yadier Molina. Contreras acknowledged that the organization was used to “his work.” Marmol acknowledged that the Cardinals really only knew one way behind the plate, that they are trying to replace an on-field coach the likes of which come along once in a generation. But Wainwright said that any recent conversation about the team’s pitch-calling with two strikes or game management has to extend beyond the catcher.

“A catcher can help with that, but it’s still the pitcher’s responsibility to execute the pitch,” Wainwright said. “No catcher in the history of the game has thrown the pitch and caught it, too.”

The Cubs bet on veterans needing a jolt. They bet on the Cubs, too.

No Cardinals team in Wainwright’s history has been more than 11 games under .500 at any time, nor teetered on the brink of implosion quite this clearly this soon. Even after three straight wins had quelled some panic this week, Arenado and Goldschmidt were on the field hours before game time Wednesday, the team’s two most prominent stars taking extra batting practice, pushing for something.

When they returned to the clubhouse, Goldschmidt paused and looked up at the television, watching an MLB Network segment about injuries to the Atlanta Braves pitching staff. Then he dropped his head and headed for the training room, or maybe for a snack, just as the lower third on the screen changed.

“Have the Cardinals turned a corner?” the graphic asked.

A few hours later, Goldschmidt and the Cardinals lost the 25th game of their season. Only the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics had lost as many. A brief winning streak and series win helped. But if the Cardinals have not turned the corner, they should probably do so soon.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *