The Brewers and Cubs Have Given the Cardinals an Opening. So Make Your Move.

In shutting out the crazed Cleveland Indians 4-0 on Monday night, the Cardinals shaped one of their finest performances of the season. The Indians had been thrashing everything in their path in recent days and weeks, but the Cardinals prevented a takeover of Busch Stadium.

And this was good to see for many reasons, and I’ll get to some of that later, but for let’s begin with this: the Cardinals are very fortunate to be perched in close range to the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and the second-place Chicago Cubs in the NL Central division.

Given the significant amount of ailments during the first three months of the season — including a hacking offense, a poisoned bullpen, and frequent injuries requiring a stay in the baseball hospital known as The Disabled List — the Cardinals should be endangered. Instead, they are only 1 and 1/2 games behind the Cubs, and trail the Brewers by four.

The Cardinals (41-36) are a frustrating, oscillating confusing, bunch … and no one owes this team as little as a murmured apology for hollering and cussing during their maddening displays of grubby fundamentals, leaden defense,  procrastination in the batter’s box, and slo-mo pitching changes. There is absolutely no reason to endorse the manager’s buddy-buddy system that makes it easy for the players, or to excuse management’s acceptance of it all.

But here’s the thing …

If the Brewers and Cubs insist on alms giving, the Cardinals ought to accept it, and make the best of it. We tend to obsess on the Cardinals’ problems because they’re a St. Louis institution. But if you ask the other 29 fan bases and media -coverage delegations in Major League Baseball, you will  hear plenty of yowling, be fascinated by the hundreds of nits being picked, and smile in amusement as managers in other locales are scorned for their incompetence. Every market has the worst manager in existence.

The Cubs are only 12-11 in June,  just got dunked on in Cincinnati (victims of a four-game sweep) and have lost five straight going into Tuesday’s game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The high-powered Cubs rank 13th in the NL with an average of 3.6 runs in June, and are 13th in slugging percentage (.360) and 12th in OPS (.678.)

Third baseman Kris Bryant, in discomfort with a sore shoulder, has a .378 slugging percentage and two homers in his last 146 plate appearances. It’s even more chronic over the last three weeks, with Bryant slugging .357 and striking out 33% of the time with one homer in 63 PA.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo — after pulling up his numbers  following a weak start — is slumping again, with a .186 average, .286 OBP, and .305 slug in his last 70 PA.

“We chase way too much,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after the Cubs’ offense was muffled again, losing 2-1 to the Dodgers Monday.  “We got to force pitchers in the strike zone more consistently. And when we do that, that’s when our offense is going to take off.”

The Brewers are even worse (9-11) in June. The problems:  an offense that’s been held to three runs or fewer in 13 of 20 games;  a bullpen that has a 3.68 ERA in June (15th in MLB) after posting the top ERA in the majors (2.45) in through the end of May; and a record inflated by romps over bad teams.

The Brewers rotation has been solid for the most part, but Chase Anderson has a 5.48 ERA in his last nine starts, and Jhoulys Chacin has pitched to a 4.63 ERA in his last six starts.  Two key parts to the Milwaukee lineup went quiet in June, with Christian Yelich batting .240 with a .387 slug, and Travis Shaw batting .211 with one homer and  .351 slug.

Against teams with winning records the Cubs are 20-18, the Cardinals 16-16, and the Brewers 19-21. Of the top three teams in the NL Central, only Milwaukee has a losing record (17-18) in division games. But the Brewers sure are tough guys when playing teams with losing records, winning 26 of 37 so far — including a combined 19-3 mark against San Diego, Cincinnati, Miami, Kansas City, Minnesota and Colorado. With that in mind I suppose the Brewers are looking forward to their next block of games, which begins Tuesday night. They’ll have nine games against Kansas City, Cincinnati and Minnesota.

No question, the Cardinals have benefited from Chicago’s zig-zagging inconsistency and Milwaukee’s weak punch against good teams. But give the Cardinals credit for going 25-16 in division games so far. That includes a combined 11-10 mark against the Cubs and Brewers. The Cardinals have done a much better job of piling up the victories in NL Central games. But the Cardinals have to take advantage of that, and keep the pressure on the Cubs and Brewers.

And they can do that by playing better ball.

The Cardinals are 11-12 this month. The shame of it is, think about how much closer the Cards would be simply if they’d taken two out of three from the Marlins, Padres and Cubs at Busch Stadium instead of losing two of three at home to those teams. The answer: 14-9 instead of 11-12. t

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