It was supposed to be the Cardinals' measuring stick for the young season, this trip to Philadelphia. Up until now the Cards had looked like the 700-pound red gorilla of old, stomping on opponents left and right and running up a big lead over the rest of a mediocre division. Going to Philly, though, to face the two-time defending NL champions, that was going to be tough. We would all get to see just what this team is really made of.
Of course, putting that much emphasis on any series in early May probably isn't a great idea, but such is the nature of sports. If the Cardinals are going to make a deep run into October, chances are they'll probably have to deal with the Phillies at some point in time. I've seen pretty much every team in the National League play a fair number of games, and I can say with conviction the Phillies and Cards are the two best teams in the NL. The Rockies are good, and the Giants have crazy pitching, but the Cardinals and Phils are the two most complete teams top to bottom.
So what does the series in Philly tell us about our Cards and their hopes for October baseball?
Unfortunately, I'm afraid what it tells us is this team just isn't quite ready for prime time yet. The Cardinals, in spite of their sterling record, have played two series against really good teams, and have lost both of them. They lost two of three to the Giants, and three of four to the Phillies. What's worse, both series looked almost identical, showing the Cards to be vulnerable in the one area they were supposed to be the strongest coming into the season: the offense.
With the exception of Kyle Lohse's abortion of a start yesterday, the pitching against the Phillies was just fine. Plenty good enough to win. Jaime Garcia was brilliant, and Adam Wainwright was just as good, deserving better than the no-decision he got as the Cards were shut down by Cole Hamels. Brad Penny wasn't nearly as good as he had been in his earlier starts, giving up a couple homers, but in a bandbox like Citizen's Bank Ballpark the occasional long ball is impossible to avoid.
No, just as in San Francisco, the Cards' bats were the culprits in their losses, as they scored only three runs in the final three games of the Philly series. In two of those three games, they were facing top-flight pitchers, and those aren't that tough to swallow. Cole Hamels has struggled to recapture the magic he had back in 2007-08, but he's still a remarkably talented pitcher, and there are night when he's going to beat you. Roy Halladay is, of course, Roy Halladay, and you have to expect a tough hill to climb when you face him. Kyle Kendrick, though... Kyle Kendrick came into the game against the Cardinals with an ERA in the mid-fives, and shut them out. (And no, I don't care that he has a history of kicking the Cards' asses. This is a different team from the others he's beaten; there's absolutely no reason he should have been able to shut them down so easily.)
The issue for the Cardinals this year has been poor situational hitting, as they have one of the worst track records with runners in scoring position in all of baseball. Matt Holliday is the biggest culprit, of course, hitting a cool .135 with RISP, but he isn't the whole story by any means. Just as large a part of the problem has been the abject suckitude of both Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan, who are OPSing .609 and .539 respectively. With two black holes in the lineup, plus the pitcher, two-thirds of the Cardinal lineup can be had at the moment. Add in Holliday's struggles with runners on, and suddenly four of your nine hitters are non-factors in RBI situations.
I'm not normally one to complain about hitters striking out; to me, a strikeout is just another out. In certain situations, though, contact is important, and the Cards have struggled with that as well. As good as Ryan Ludwick and Colby Rasmus have been in most situations this season, both are prone to striking out quite a bit. I'll take their production any time, but those empty swings with RISP do hurt nonetheless.
So what the Cardinals have right now is an offense with three black holes a night, all right in a row from 8-1 in the lineup. They also have a slugger right in the middle who has been completely hopeless in RBI situations, and a fair number of strikeouts even from the spots that are generally producing. Given such a confluence of problems, it's really no surprise the offense is struggling to produce runs. If a pitcher can just pitch around Albert Pujols and David Freese, he can either get to Holliday or the bottom of the lineup any time the Cards start to put something together.
The real question is what can be done about it. The answer, unfortunately, is probably, "Not much." I'm not concerned about Matt Holliday just yet. He's a notoriously slow starter, and hasn't really been truly awful anyway. While it's fun to text, "$120 million bust!!!!!!" to friends every time he comes up in a clutch situation and makes an out, he's still one of the most productive hitters in baseball since he came into the league. Schumaker and Ryan, though, that's a different story. Schumaker has a pretty good track record as a consistent high-average, low-power hitter, but his approach looks just awful here this season. Ryan is even more worrisome; he looks as lost as any hitter I can recall seeing. I'm hopeful both of them can turn it around and get going, but I'll admit to some real worry about those two.
The strikeouts I can live with, as they're largely a function of working deep counts anyway, which is always a good thing in the long run. Still, Colby in particular I would like to see tighten up his two-strike approach; even if he does, he's still going to strike out fairly often. It's just the sort of hitter he is. Jim Edmonds was the same way.
If the two series the Cardinals have lost this year have taught us anything, it's that our concerns coming into the year were totally logical and apparently completely misplaced. The rotation has been astounding, the bullpen has been solid. The offense, though, even with the mythical "Protection for Albert" finally in place, has been very hit or miss. (Get it? Hit or miss? 'Cause they're hitters, and they're striking out a lot, but it's also, like, a way to say all or nothing? Is this thing on?)
I still feel like the Cards and Phillies are the two best teams in the National League, but the Cardinal offense has a long way to go before they're really ready to make any sort of run at the other playoff teams. Luckily, they have five more months to try and get it right.
Regardless, this Philadelphia series has left me depressed and contemplating that bottle of tequila in my freezer in conjunction with more blogging. Seeing as how that's probably a bad idea, I'll just let The Boss tell you how I feel.