Decked: Sloppy Cards off to worst start in 2 decades

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez walks off the field after being relieved in the sixth inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees, Saturday, April 15, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

NEW YORK (AP) 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 has the worst record in the National League at 4-9 and its poorest start since 1997 courtesy of shoddy play all over the diamond.

”I think it’s magnified when it happens this early,” manager Mike Matheny said. ”Rightfully so.”

The Cardinals looked crisp Monday night, beating Pittsburgh 2-1 at home. Yet for an organization that takes immense pride in attention to detail and executing properly, all the ugly miscues have been startling.

St. Louis has committed 10 errors, plunked nine batters and thrown five wild pitches. Not to mention the 45 walks issued by a pitching staff sporting a 4.66 ERA.

The 34-year-old Molina, recently signed to a $60 million contract covering 2018-20, permitted a passed ball in two straight game over the weekend.

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 .209 with just 44 total runs, among the lowest 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 .167. ”But it’s believing in ourselves and believing in this team. We know that we’re a good team.”

Even in mid-April with 149 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 hoped to find their footing back home. They took an overnight flight to St. Louis to begin a three-game series against the Pirates.

”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’s 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 .132 with one extra-base hit. Looking to boost the bullpen, the Cardinals gave free-agent lefty Brett Cecil a $30.5 million, four-year contract last November. He has a 9.00 ERA in seven outings. ”Like they say: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Fowler said.

MISSING YOU

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 was batting .120, Kolten Wong .167 and Randal Grichuk .213. ”We’ll get it figured out,” Matheny said.

AP Sports Writer Jake Seiner contributed to this story.

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