McNeal: Cardinals coming back to earth after red-hot start

ST. LOUIS — For a team coming off a 13-run outburst at Houston on Tuesday, the Cardinals looked more like a team heading for a slump on Wednesday.

The eighth inning was particularly troubling. After Carlos Beltran drew a one-out walk with St. Louis down 4-3, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday both struck out against Astros rookie Jose Cisnero.

When Craig took strike three, he stood at the plate almost like he was dazed. He could not have been stunned by the call because the pitch clearly was a strike. Holliday then worked the count full before he swung and missed an up-and-in fastball that looked like ball four. Beltran was stranded and an inning later, the Cardinals had lost for the seventh time in 12 games.

In the losses, the Cardinals have scored 4, 2, 2, 4, 2, 1 and 3 runs. They no longer own sole possession of the majors’ best record. The surging Pirates have tied the Cardinals in the standings and passed them for the majors lead in team ERA.

So, what’s the deal? Are the Cardinals not as good as we thought?

I don’t know if they are a 100-win team, which they are on pace to be. But I know this: Baseball isn’t as easy over a 162-game season as the Cardinals have made it look through 78 games. It’s just not.

Teams don’t hit .337 with runners in scoring position for an entire season. Teams don’t use 10 rookie pitchers without seeing more downs than ups. Teams don’t often anoint a new closer during the season and watch him convert his first 20 save chances.

But even if the Cardinals are settling into their level, they will be fine. To finish with 90 wins, which should be enough to make the playoffs, they need to play .500 from here on. While they might not be strong enough to win 100 games, they’re certainly better than .500.

Yadier Molina’s notable number of the week: 96 hits as a catcher. That’s 24 more hits than any other catcher this season, a pretty astounding margin.

Molina will enter this weekend’s series at Oakland on a pace to finish with 199 hits as a catcher, which would break Ivan Rodriguez’a single-season record of 198, set in 1999.

Molina is unlikely to keep up such a pace with the summer just turning steamy. For one reason, he figures to get much more time off. A favorable schedule, however, should get Molina to the All-Star break with perhaps only one more day off.

The Cardinals spend the next week on the West Coast, where mild weather doesn’t add to the catching grind. They have another day off between the Marlins and Astros series at home, then will finish the first half with four games at Wrigley Field.

Molina is likely to get a day off at home next weekend and — maybe — a day in Chicago but I would not expect him to sit any out more than that until the break.

McClellan knew he was a goner: When Kyle McClellan’s season ended last June with shoulder surgery, he knew his days with his hometown team were history. He hadn’t seen many of the organization’s young arms in spring training but he had heard about them.

“I knew they had them coming,” McClellan said when in town last weekend with his new team, the Rangers. “That’s why when I had surgery last year and was asked, what do you think’s going to happen, I said they’re going to let me go.”

McClellan said the club questioned him for saying something like that. But he had his reason.

“Do you know what they have behind me,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re about to find out.”

He was right, about his departure and the young arms that have arrived.

Remember these dates: Aug. 13-Sept. 8. The Cardinals have 26 games scheduled during that stretch, and nine are against the Pirates. In addition, the teams will meet for a five-game series in Pittsburgh at the end of July. The Pirates lead the season series 3-2, so far.