Home sweet home.
As the St. Louis Cardinals head back to Busch Stadium for their second-last homestand of the season, they and their fans are faced with a stark and startling reality:
They’ve been oh-so-shocking bad at Busch.
The Redbirds, who open a seven-game stretch at home Thursday against Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs, are just 30-37 in the home whites this year.
How important is that? If the Cardinals had just reversed that record so far this season – standing 37-30 at home, say, instead of the other way around – they’d be 80-57 overall, comfortably ahead in the wild-card race and holding home-field advantage for that one-game wild card playoff next month.
Instead, they are 73-65, tied with the New York Mets (74-66) for the second wild-card spot and trailing the San Francisco (74-64) by a game in the battle for the top wild-card spot. One of those three teams is going to be on the outside looking in when the season ends at close of business Oct. 2. The Cardinals could have taken themselves out of that conversation with better play at home this year.
Instead, the Redbirds hold this singular distinction as the regular season reaches its final three weeks: They’re the only major-league team with a winning record this year to have a losing record at home.
And that matters mightily, considering the Cardinals are set to play 14 of their remaining 24 games at home. At the rate they’ve won at home this year, they’ll wind up winning just six of those 14, winding up with a less-than-stellar 36-45 record at Busch.
This for a team, mind you, that went 55-26 home last year, tying with the Dodgers for the best home record in baseball.
Yeah, it's a different animal here. You can't miss the ball and hit it out here. It’s just not going to happen. It’s a much, much different ballpark.
This year, only three teams in baseball — Atlanta, with 22 wins at home, Arizona, with 25 wins at home, and Minnesota, with 27 wins at home — have worse home records than the Cardinals.
And those three teams, mind you, are a combined 70 games below .500.
What’s the reason the Cardinals have a sudden dislike of home cooking? Maybe — maybe much more than maybe — it’s because of the way this team is built. It is heavy on the home-run ball, and necessarily less reliant on the hallmark principles of winning Cardinals teams in years past.
Read: Strong defense and superior starting pitching.
This team, with 201 home runs — 64 more than the 137 hit by last year’s team, with 34 games to play — is finding the longball harder to come by in a spacious Busch Stadium.
Truth to tell, the ballpark plays bigger than it is, leaving fly balls to die on the warning track instead of landing in a happy fan’s hands in the bleachers.
That has lasting consequences for a team that is increasingly home-run happy.
“Yeah, it’s a different animal here,” Brandon Moss told reporters at the end of the Cardinals’ last homestand. “You can’t miss the ball and hit it out here. It’s just not going to happen. It's a much, much different ballpark.”
The dimensions are greater than in most parks, and the ball travels less well in the humidity of summertime.
The team homered in a franchise- record 20 consecutive games last month, has a major-league record 15 pinch-hit home runs, and has nine players with double-digit HR totals.
Maybe that wasn’t as great a factor for past Cardinals clubs built with the blueprint that has produced so much success through the years — catching the ball well and pitching it even better. But this team is so reliant on homers — the team homered in a franchise-record 20 consecutive games last month, has a major-league record 15 pinch-hit home runs, and has nine players with double-digit HR totals — it stands to reason it would come up short in a ballpark that doesn’t accommodate an offense built around the big bash.
Consider: The Redbirds have scored 309 runs — or 45.5 percent of their team total — on the 201 homers they’ve hit this year.
And consider: The Cardinals needed all five home runs they hit Tuesday night to prevail 9-7 over Pittsburgh, as every one was plated with the long ball.
“What’d we hit tonight, five?” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny asked reporters clustered around his desk in the visiting clubhouse after the game. “Wow. It’s impressive. Once again, it just shows the talent level of the guys we have, taking good at-bats and not stopping.”
And yet all this can be disconcerting for St. Louis fans. Even the players on the team find it out of character for this franchise.
“I’ve been on a team that didn’t hit many and we won a championship,” Yadier Molina told reporters in Pittsburgh after hitting a grand slam Tuesday. “I don’t care about homers.”
Sad to say, it’s not just homers at home, either: Busch plays bigger, in general, and it shows in the team’s power production before the home folks.
I’ve been on a team that didn’t hit many and we won a championship. I don't care about homers.
The Cardinals have 49 fewer extra-base hits at home this year (125 doubles, nine triples and the 86 home runs) than their 269 on the road (134 doubles, 20 triples and 115 home runs).
The team’s slugging percentage is .433 at home, .466 on the road, and it has scored just 295 runs in St. Louis compared to 384 in the road grays.
It’s enough to make you wonder if this team as presently constituted can be a winning club at home, given the bigger outfield dimensions and tougher hitting conditions for a power-hitting bunch.
Hmm. Maybe the Cardinals ought to be angling to finish second in the wild card race, so they can take their chances in that one-game playoff on the road.
Hey, you don’t think this has been their plan all along, do you?