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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 …

–Bernie

  • Richard Craig Friedman

    If the group stays the same, so will the result. Management has the means to change the group, but does it have the will to do so? Not much time before it will be too late for this season. While haste makes waste, time waits for no man. Enough cliches?

  • Leadership in a manager translates first into decision-making. It seems that when Matheny hired on the moral and relational aspects of leadership were emphasized. But without good decision-making how can a leader keep good relations with his players? He will inevitably lose their respect. I think MM needed ten years in the minors to learn to manage without thinking about the name on back of the jersey. Matheny was a great team player and one of my favorite Cardinals. But a manager needs a little more Mr. Doo-roash-er (as Jed Clampett called him) in him.

  • Louis

    I have given up on them showing much fight. Even in the many leads that they have blown I can’t remember them fighting back to take the lead with the exception of opening night. I know it won’t happen but I wish that when the Cardinals return at home tonight that there will be a ton of empty seats. Maybe then Dimwitt will understand how big of problem this team actually has. I’ve seen some recognition from the front office on the poor play but it’s time to send a message by making a change, even if it’s a small one.

  • Anthony Reitz

    They’re 6 games under and 4.5 games out. Despite an abysmal stretch they’re still in it. Yes, the Cardinals are flawed (but we knew that). Yes, the Cardinals are looking like a non playoff team 2 years in a row (Get used to fighting for the WC. Cubs are better top to bottom). But in the end, the Cardinals and us fans aren’t owed the best team in baseball every year. We’ve been fortunate as fans. Look around the league, watch more baseball maybe? And realize there’s no such thing as an invincible org. Now, the Cardinals take their lumps and fight for a WC. Just like everyone else.

    • Louis

      Maybe you should look around the league and watch more baseball. Maybe then you’d realize the Cardinals are actually closer in the NL central (4.5 GB) than they are the Wild Card (8.5 GB). Regardless of the past the bottom line is they are under performing and I think a lot of the disappointment is that they aren’t taking advantage of a currently weak division. Although the Cubs probably run away with the division (you seem like a closet Cubs fan so you might like that) the Cardinals have butchered the opportunity to gain ground on the struggling Chubbies.

  • James Berry

    So many flaws, so little time.

    The Cardinals should never have gone into the season with Peralta as their starting 3rd baseman and the backup 1st baseman hitting from the same side as the starter. That starter, Goldenboy as i like to call him, has been a square peg being forced in to round holes since his ascension as a starter. He’s a very limited defensive player who probably belongs in the AL. Now our starting 3rd baseman lost his job, rightly so, and refuses to take time at 1st as a way to get ABs. Our backup 1st baseman, to start the season, now resides in Atlanta and is doing a fine job. Our current backup 1st baseman is a career minor league OFer who looks completely lost at 1st.

    When you have that many problems at just one position and it’s only the tip of the iceberg, your season is going to go badly. Very badly.

  • rightthinker4

    If you saw Molina’s last at bat in Cincinnati yesterday, that was a sign he had given up. He went down on 3 pitches, and the last one was a pathetic attempt. This is a big series, not for the standings, but for pride. We’ll see if the Cardinals have any.

    • Louis

      Last two sentences, well put. Agreed.

  • BradW

    The team management will only start taking drastic action once people stop showing up in the seats at Busch. That may start to happen very soon.

  • JeremyR

    No, this is a DeWitt team. The problem isn’t something intangible, it’s a lack of talent, partly because DeWitt is unwilling to pay top dollar for free agents, so the Cardinals end up paying full price for average players

    And at the same time, their draft policy (which seemingly is also driven by money, why they picked Kozma instead of Porcello) aims for low ceiling guys most of the time.

    Even their international signings could be better. They go for the modest player, not the superstars. They end up spending a lot of money, but get average players in return. Potential superstars like Robert? Out of the Cardinals league.

  • Chris Moeller

    I’ve never found it a strain to defend the ’06 champs. The team AVERAGED 98 wins per season from 2000-2005. Same core.

  • Tarzan

    Not too much crowing these days about “The Cardinal Way”, huh?
    We Cards fans need a ‘feel good’ push by the Cards. How about a seven-game winning streak? Or 10 or 15 wins in a row….

  • Tim

    Instead of extending the life of a dying patient, it is time to pull the plug and restart the franchise. Else we would be like old Phillies, old and tired and bad

  • JDinSTL

    The Saint Louis sports media sat back and watched this happen the last 3 offseasons in a row. “Let’s see how it plays out”. “It’s early”

    No, it’s late now.

    There is a price to going into a regular season in 2016 with a guy like Windmill Grichuk as your opening day CF and cleanup hitter.

    There is a price to going into the regular season in 2017 with a stiff like Jhonny Peralta as your opening day 3b and cleanup hitter.

    Everybody on that team saw Gyorko hit 30 bombs last year.

    Yet, Peralta gets the nod.

    You want to know why the complacent arrogant Mozeliak lost this team?

    Look no further.