Halfway into an ‘unsatisfying’ Cards season, here’s what McNeal has learned

In an offensively challenging season thus far, the Cardinals' best hitter has been Matt Adams.

Scott Kane/AP

To wrap up the Cardinals’ first 80 games in a sentence, how about: It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult.

If you’d rather summarize the first three months in a question, it’s obvious: What has happened to the offense?

If you want an exclamation point in your description: I told you they weren’t going to hit .330 with runners in scoring position again!

Or if you’re looking for a simple, one-word description, it would be "unsatisfying."

You might prefer "disappointing," but that is a tad too strong for me. While the Cardinals, at 43-37, are six games behind last year’s pace, they still would qualify for the postseason if the season ended today. Even if that would be the one-game play-in, their hopes for a deep October run still would be alive. Isn’t that the goal?


Now, if you said the offense has been a disappointment, you would not get an argument from anyone. Just check the numbers:

Last year after 80 games, the Cardinals were averaging 4.9 runs a game with a .275/.335/.411 slash line and 71 homers.

This year after the same number of games: 3.8 runs, .251/.318/.367 and 46 homers.

And the big difference: The Cardinals were hitting .339 with RISP at this point in 2013. This year: .250. When you consider how close that is to their overall batting average, this has been the normal year. Last year truly was special. When you combine their historic performance with RISP and the unprecedented success of their rookie pitchers last year, you must have learned that by now.

I have, and it’s not all I learned in the first half.

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— Busch Stadium has become a graveyard for home runs. You can put some of this on who’s doing the hitting, but if you’ve watched as many games at Busch as I have, you know there has been a surplus of warning-track outs. A cold start to the season had something to do with this, but don’t expect a dramatic increase as summer wears on.

Busch ranked near the bottom in producing homers last year, but this year it stands alone at the bottom. Fewer homers (46) have been hit at Busch than any park in the majors. Manager Mike Matheny said on the last homestand that he now has members of the opposing team telling him how the ball doesn’t carry in St. Louis.

— Lance Lynn has turned a corner. Maybe his bad outings have been a result of tipping pitches. Maybe he will fade in August again. Maybe he still lacks the consistency in his breaking pitches to truly be more than a good No. 2 starter.

But there is no maybe that Lynn is on the best roll of his four-year career. In his past eight starts, he has thrown his first complete game and first shutout and twice pitched eight shutout innings. He will take a 2.90 ERA into his next start, more than half a run better than what he put up at this point in his first two seasons as a starter.

I’m not one to make a lot out of one start, but Lynn’s outing at Coors Field on Monday night was the kind that should take him to another level. He delivered eight shutout innings in the most hitter-friendly park in the majors, and he did so at a time when the Cardinals were just about desperate for some positive development. After that, he should be past the mid-inning breakdowns that have led to his streakiness.

— Matt Adams has been their best offensive player. You could say he hasn’t had a lot of competition or that I must be nuts for saying someone with a 47-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio or the fourth-most RBIs on the club has been its best hitter.

But Adams leads the team with a .328 batting average. And since he came off the disabled list he has started to flex his power game and has been much better at laying off bad pitches against left-handers. The longer he stays in the three- or four-hole, the more he’ll pay off in the RBI department.

— Oscar Taveras is not going to save the day. I say this not because he hit .189 in his first call-up. He still had the approach of a big-league hitter, but whether he was adjusting to big-league pitching or his timing was off, he wasn’t at his finest. Either way, that’s understandable.

I don’t think he’ll be the second-half answer because the club’s talk about him being able to handle center field seems to have changed. In spring training, the impression was that Taveras would be adequate in center. Not Peter Bourjos, but perhaps Jon Jay.

But if the club still believes Taveras can man center, why isn’t he playing there in Memphis? He hasn’t been in center since he returned to the minors two weeks ago and has played there in only 17 of 60 games for the Redbirds this season.

If he’s not in center, finding at-bats in St. Louis is not likely. Actually, even if he could play center, he would be displacing Jay, the team’s only other .300 hitter besides Adams.

One way Taveras could impact this season would be to feature him in a blockbuster deal. But do you really think it’s time to use that chip?

— Mike Matheny has not been the problem. For that matter, neither has John Mabry. Aside from the occasional head-scratching pitching change that all managers make, Matheny has been the same steady, capable leader he was hired to be and has been in his first two seasons.

If anything, his relentless approach to grinding through the long season is just what this team needs. After a hard-luck 1-0 loss on Thursday night, no one would have faulted the skipper if he had gone off on Bourjos’ baserunning gaffe or blasted a replay system that failed him again. But Matheny stayed calm and steady, rightfully frustrated but ready to move on to the next game.

He knows he’s in for a season that will be tougher than anyone expected.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.