The Cardinals Played Good Baseball at Arizona. Was It a Tease or Will They Build on It?

It was fun to watch the Cardinals play energetic, exciting baseball for three days to win a series at Arizona. It was also frustrating. Please let me explain.

I promise I’m not trying to be negative here. Given the Cards’ recent misery, I appreciate what they pulled off in Arizona, going  into Chase Field and taking two of three games from one of the best and hottest teams in the majors.

Entering the series the Diamondbacks had a 49-28 record and were 29-10 at home.  Their home dominance was especially unrelenting in recent weeks, with a 14-2 record at Chase since May 15. And after squandering a late 5-2 lead and losing the first game on Tuesday night, the Cardinals didn’t mope. They rallied against a damned good ballclub to take two in a row.

Cards’ hitters averaged 6.3 runs per game and scored five runs in 8.2 innings of at-bats against an excellent Arizona bullpen. Cards pitchers limited AZ to 13 runs in the series, and that’s very good considering the D-backs’ home average of 6.2 runs per game.

Cardinals starting pitchers Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn successfully  fought off a dangerous Diamondbacks lineup, combining to give up seven earned runs in 18.1 innings for a 3.44 ERA. The rotation came through with three consecutive quality starts in a three-game series for the first time since May 12-14.

And after Tuesday’s meltdown, the Cards’ bullpen clamped down during the two wins, getting touched for two earned runs in 5.2 innings … and one of those runs was a garbage-time solo homer after the Cardinals carried a 10-3 lead into the ninth inning Thursday.

The Cardinals defense had a couple of poor moments but was not charged with an error during the three games. The base-running was competent. It was good baseball.

And that’s what frustrates me.

This is no powerhouse team, but the Cardinals are capable of being better than they are. Based on underlying statistics and the opponent-quality adjustments made by Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals should have a 41-37 record. Instead, they’re 37-41.

Four games may not seem like a big deal, but I think it is. With first place in the NL Central still on the table, there for a team to grab it, every win is precious. Every bungled win is damaging.

Again, I am not confusing the 2017 Cardinals with the 2004 Cardinals. But the display in Arizona offered a view of what the Cardinals should be. An offense that can draw walks and pounce on openings. Solid starting pitching that gives the team a chance to win. A reliable bullpen — over the last two days, anyway. Clean baseball.

I don’t think that is too much to ask.

I’m not demanding greatness from a team that doesn’t have the horses to ride to greatness. But the 2017 Cardinals can raise their record and elevate their performance just by playing a crisp brand of baseball, severely limiting their knucklehead tendencies, taking smarter at-bats and getting reasonable run-prevention results from their pitchers.

Obviously, we haven’t seen enough of that. We haven’t seen many stretches where every area of the team — offense, pitching, defense, base running — clicks in unison for a while. The synergy is elusive.

The Cardinals are fortunate to be only 3.5 games out of first place.

The last time a STL team had a losing season, 2007, the record was about the same through 78 games.

The ’07 Cardinals were 36-42 through 78, and the 2017 Cardinals are 37-41.

Here’s the profound difference: after 78 games, the 2007 Cardinals were 9.5 games out of first place. The ’17 Cardinals are much closer. For additional perspective look back to last summer. After 78 games into their schedule, the 2016 Cardinals were a 40-38 — or three games better than they are now at the same point. But by then the ’16 division race didn’t matter; the Cards were already 11 games behind the first-place Cubs after Game No. 78.

The Cardinals undoubtedly are relieved — and maybe surprised — to find themselves within fairly easy reach of first place. I thought Lance Lynn presented the perfect perspective in a postgame conversation with Post-Dispatch Hall of Fame baseball writer Rick Hummel.

Talking about the Cardinals being only 3.5 games behind the first-place Brewers Lynn said this:  “If you look at yourself in the mirror, we would say we’re having a bad year. We’ve got a lot of things we need to get right. When you look at it, yeah, we’re two games back or whatever. But we still haven’t played good baseball. Who cares about how many games back we are? We’ve got to start playing good baseball.”

Exactly.

The Cardinals have played a lot of bad baseball in 2017.

They played good baseball in the Arizona series and you could see what it did for the team’s energy. The Cardinals had a rollicking good time in Thursday’s 10-4 win, which was highlighted by Randal Grichuk’s homer and five RBIs.

What did this series mean?

Was it a fluke?

Was it a temporary turn in a positive direction?

Will the Cardinals revert to having destructive, lunkhead lapses in fundamentals?

I don’t know.

But they have an opportunity to build on their small but hopeful success in Arizona.

Between now and the All-Star break, the Cardinals are set up for a 10-game home stand. Three against Washington, four vs. Miami, three against the NY Mets.

The Cardinals will show us if any real momentum will come out of Arizona … or if the series was an aberration and a tease.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Cardinals’ Young Hitters Must Go to Memphis for Help Because the Big-League Staff Can’t Fix Them