As the Cardinals Come Home, I Must Ask: If This Is Baseball Heaven, Then Why Are They Playing Like Hell?

It’s been bad, really bad. The Cardinals come home with a smelly, seven-game losing streak. They have won five of their last 22 games. This is 2007 bad. This a big comedown from the organization’s high standards for success.

For the 16 seasons covering 2000 through 2015, the Cardinals won the most regular-season games in the National League. They competed in more postseason games (125) than any franchise in baseball. They won more postseason games, 65, than any team in baseball. They made the playoffs 12 times and enhanced the franchise’s considerable legacy with four more NL pennants and two additional World Series trophies.

Those were the days my friends.

This was a baseball monarchy, with Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.  becoming the de facto Sports King of St. Louis.

The palace looks a little weathered, scuffed, and grimy.

The Cardinals missed making the playoffs last season and were overthrown in the NL Central by a brawny and intelligent Cubs team that beat them by 17.5 games in the division standings. Those same Cubs aggressively rearranged the division power structure by storming  the gates, eradicating the Cardinals’ superiority, and wiping out their arch nemesis in the 2015 NLDS.

This season the Cardinals are a disheveled 26-32,  tied for 20th in the bigs in winning percentage.

Over the last two seasons, your favorite team’s 112-108 record could politely be described as mediocre.

The Cardinals don’t even have a true sanctuary at Busch Stadium, having 38-43 at home last season, followed by a 14-15 mark in their habitat in 2017. That two-year home winning percentage, .473, is tied for 25th among the 30 MLB teams.

And I don’t have to tell you about the deterioration of defense, fundamentals and baseball smarts.

This isn’t a DeWitt team; this is a NitWitt team.

This is what we all want to know …

Who will do something about it?

How will the Cardinals — from top to bottom — respond to their absolute worst run of depressing baseball since spiraling on a nine-game losing streak in September of 2007 that buried them with a 78-84 record. The 2007 Cardinals were a troubled, wounded and flawed team. Defending their 2006 World Series championship was a strain.

But I covered those Cardinals closely in 2007, and I can say this about the them: they battled strenuously to salvage the season. At the end of business on Sept. 6, 2007 the Cardinals were only 1 game out of first place. They weren’t very good, they had many blemishes, and there were some hideous crises that shook them during the season, including the drunk-driving death of reliever Josh Hancock in April, and the fluke career-ending eye injury that struck down outfielder Juan Encarnacion in late August.

Albert Pujols was great (as always) but other key lineup regulars (Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen) had down seasons. A rotation that lost ace Chris Carpenter to a season-ending injury on opening night labored through the season with the likes of Kip Wells and finished 23rd in rotation ERA.

But manager Tony La Russa wouldn’t let his significantly damaged team go down without a fight. Yes, the Cardinals eventually succumbed; the nine-game losing streak tore them apart. But even then, La Russa’s boys didn’t stop competing, throwing down. The finished the season by winning five of their last seven games. No one hands out medals for a 78-84 record. But if I may stay with the cheesy boxing metaphor for a minute, the ’07 Cardinals were a fighter with a couple of fractured ribs, a  busted jaw, heavy cuts to the cheek, and eyes swollen after absorbing dozens of punches.  And they kept pushing, trying to trudge forward. Their fade wasn’t an embarrassment; it was inevitable.

Thinking back to the battered but defiant ’07 Cardinals, I ask this question:

Will this 2017 team fight hard to earn respect?

I have to say, I haven’t seen much pushback. Over the last three weeks, I haven’t seen the Cardinals get knocked down and jump right up. And this block of the last 22 games isn’t exactly a marketing tool for touting the Cards’ energy, persistence, intensity of effort, or competitiveness.

Or maybe the 2017 Cardinals aren’t capable of summoning a vigorous resistance.

This is a team that’s squandered 14 leads of at least two runs this season. A team that, during the seven-game losing streak, lost five games after taking a lead into the seventh inning. It is a team with a scary, self-destructive bullpen. A team that continues to run into foolish outs on the bases. And the defensive lapses. And their relative futility in high-leverage at-bats.

If the 2017 Cardinals have it in them to make a stand, and to immediately disassociate themselves from the mental gaffes, the physical missteps, the squandered leads, the feckless displays in late innings …

Well, boys. This is the time.

I’m not saying the 2017 Cardinals are loaded with talent. They are not. But they have it in them to get motivated and go clean up the junk they’ve left on the field during this 5-17 act of vandalism on their season.

The Cardinals have enough talent to prevent becoming who they are: a 26-32 team that’s wallowing in the mess they’ve created. This team has players, many players, who are absolutely capable of elevating the quality of their play. You don’t think so? Then tell me how the Cardinals were able to go 18-6 in their only good stretch of excellent baseball this season.

It appears that I overestimated this team; I thought they would reach 90 wins and return to the postseason. But I won’t yield on this point: there is no excuse for the deplorable baseball we’ve had to watch in recent weeks.

The Cardinals may not be a 90-win team, as I believed they were. But they shouldn’t be an embarrassment. They coughed up on a chance to take full advantage of their fine starting pitching — which still ranks No. 3 in the majors despite a recent downturn — to stack wins. By wasting the superb rotation work, the Cardinals also defaulted on a sweet chance to exploit slow starts by rivals in the NL Central. The slumps and awful fundamentals and the mental mistakes have taken this team down.

Will they get up?

Will they smack back?

And if — as I believe — Mike Matheny is such a respected leader, then let’s see it. Anyone can lead when the parts are working, and the team is clicking. Leaders distinguish themselves with how they guide a team through adversity … through a baseball inferno … through the frustration and anguish and depletion of confidence.

If Matheny is a great leader, it’s time to see it .

Time to see if Matheny get a rousing response from his team.

Given that Matheny has failed — for the second year in a row — to rehabilitate his team’s impaired fundamentals, the least he can do is prove he really is a strong leader … and reaffirm that his players still care about playing hard for him.

So it’s decision time, fellows.

What will it be?

Mark McGwire famously called St. Louis “baseball heaven.” I don’t know if it is heaven, but it’s a great place to play if baseball is your chosen profession. Sellout crowds, unconditional support, and a warm and friendly baseball vibe. This may not be baseball heaven, but this much is true: it’s way time for the Cardinals to pull each other up and get out of baseball hell.

Thanks for reading …