NEW YORK — Yadier Molina reached for a ball in the dirt the other day at Yankee Stadium, the sort of pitch he usually smothers with ease using his chest protector and a square set of shoulders.
This time, though, he tried to make a backhand stab with his mitt as the ball skipped by.
Poor technique, to be frank, from an eight-time Gold Glove winner widely considered one of the greatest defensive catchers in baseball history. Molina knew it, too, and slammed his mask to the ground as he chased toward the backstop.
It’s just two weeks into the season, but something seems off about the St. Louis Cardinals.
Molina is only one example. Long known for winning The Cardinal Way, St. Louis entered Monday with the worst record (3-9) in the National League and its worst start since 1988 courtesy of shoddy play all over the diamond.
“I think it’s magnified when it happens this early,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Rightfully so.”
For an organization that takes immense pride in attention to detail and executing properly, all the ugly miscues have been startling.
St. Louis had committed 10 errors, plunked seven batters and thrown five wild pitches through Sunday. That’s not to mention the 44 walks issued by a pitching staff sporting an NL-high 4.98 ERA.
The 34-year-old Molina, recently signed to a $60 million contract covering 2018-20, has permitted a passed ball in each of the past two games.
And the bullpen thus far? Yikes.
“The answer is ‘work’ right now,” Matheny said. “We’ve got to work hard but work smart, making sure that we’re attacking the little things that we’re seeing that are keeping us from the results that we’re looking for.”
The hitters have hardly been immune.
The Cardinals were batting .212 with just 42 total runs, next-to-last in both categories among NL teams. Their slugging percentage of .332 was by far the lowest in the league.
“We all know that we’re going to bounce out of this funk sooner than later,” said Matt Adams, batting .174. “But it’s believing in ourselves and believing in this team. We know that we’re a good team.”
Even in mid-April with 150 games to go, it’s strange to see St. Louis at the bottom of the standings. After all, this is a club that made 12 playoff appearances in 16 seasons from 2000-15 — five straight before falling one game short last year at 86-76.
But this season, a walk-off win on Opening Night against the World Series champion Chicago Cubs has been about the only major highlight.
Swept this past weekend by the New York Yankees, the Cardinals hope to find their footing back home. They took an overnight flight to St. Louis to begin a three-game series Monday evening against Pittsburgh.
“The thing that I like when you have a good start is it’s something that you just, you go back to. You go back to, ‘Hey, remember, this is what we do,'” Matheny said. “We haven’t seen it yet, and that’s concerning. We will see it, and I think we’ll see it for long periods of time. But at the beginning, especially when you have younger players, and we have some guys who haven’t been around that long, they need to sense that winning expectation. … It’s amazing how powerful that is.”
A closer look at what’s gone wrong:
THE FORMER ACE
Adam Wainwright is 0-3 with a 7.24 ERA and appears to be fading fast. The 35-year-old righty, losing zip on his fastball, has allowed 21 hits in 8 2/3 innings over his past two outings. He has yet to last longer than five innings in any of his three starts. “The stuff is good. I’ve gotten through lineups all the way and pitched nine innings with way worse stuff than I have right now,” Wainwright said. “I really can’t understand it. I can’t explain it. I just have to keep going. I just have to know that this isn’t how it’s going to be.”
THE NEW GUYS
After finishing 17 games behind the rival Cubs last year, St. Louis attempted to close the gap by signing center fielder Dexter Fowler away from Chicago for $82.5 million over five years. The leadoff man had struck out in nearly one-third of his at-bats and was hitting .143 with one extra-base hit through Sunday. Looking to boost the bullpen, the Cardinals gave free-agent lefty Brett Cecil a four-year, $30.5 million contract last November. He entered Monday with a 9.00 ERA in seven outings. “Like they say: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Fowler said.
Without much speed to speak of, the Cardinals relied on the long ball last year. They hit 225 homers, most in the NL. But then they let three players go who combined for 60 of those home runs: Brandon Moss, Matt Holliday and Jeremy Hazelbaker. Without them, St. Louis has struggled to find production at the plate. Jhonny Peralta is batting .120, Kolten Wong .148 and Randal Grichuk .182. “We’ll get it figured out,” Matheny said.