ST. LOUIS — At this time last year, a magical season was well under way at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals sported the best record and lowest ERA in the majors and were hitting an off-the-charts .339 with runners in scoring position.
This year, well, that magic seems to have gone the way of their power. Both have been hard to find.
The Cardinals are 34-32, compared to 43-23 a year ago. Instead of leading the NL Central by 3 1/2 games, they trail by five. They’re 10th in the NL in runs, not second. They’re fourth in ERA, not first. And their batting average with RISP is .238, which isn’t the least bit enchanting but can’t be unexpected for a team hitting .247 overall.
Now, here’s the point: If you’re still waiting for this year to become like last year, you can stop. It’s not going to happen.
To begin with, the odds of repeating last year’s success with RISP were about the same as the Cubs’ chances of winning the World Series. Sure, the Cardinals could — and should — be more productive offensively. Still, the chances are far greater they will hit more like they have for the first 66 games this year than how they hit last year.
Manager Mike Matheny seems to have come to such a realization. When the Cardinals finished their difficult 26-of-38-games-on-the-road opening to the season, the third-year skipper was counting on a stretch of consistency that would put the club on a course to meet its lofty expectations.
"We keep saying it because we keep expecting it to happen," he said then, adding there had been times of such a performance but "seldom for an extended period."
"That’s what we’re waiting for," he added. "Then we can define what kind of team we are. I don’t think we’ve seen it yet."
A month later, following a 15-13 stretch that ended Wednesday night with a 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay, Matheny wasn’t concerned about defining his team. Like he stopped a couple of weeks ago talking about this or that victory possibly sparking a dramatic turnaround, he saw no value in trying to identify the personality of the 2014 Cardinals.
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"We need to get our eyes off that," he said. "Maybe defining our team is going to be one of those things we look back at instead of thinking, OK, now we figured it out."
Then, without trying, he offered the best definition of what the Cardinals’ season has been and very likely will be about all summer.
"We’re just going to grind. That’s the kind of team we’re going to have to be," he said. "A grinding team that every day walks out of here with our hearts sore and tired. We’re just going to have to fight our way through this."
This doesn’t mean the Cardinals can’t battle their way deep into October or are destined for a disappointing season. Don’t forget that despite their lackluster performance, they’re just a half-game out in the wild-card standings.
Their roster remains so stocked that they don’t have enough at-bats to go around for the likes of Oscar Taveras and Peter Bourjos. Their pitching staff is so deep that they really haven’t missed Kevin Siegrist or Joe Kelly, who were two of their most valuable pitchers in the second half a year ago.
While the magic might have disappeared, the talent hasn’t. In the end, that will make the difference, even if the journey is a lot more difficult.