St. Louis Cardinals

Want to crawl back in the race? Here’s what the Cards have to do

As Mike Shannon once said, memorably, you have to believe it to see it.

In this smoke-and-mirrors 2016 St. Louis Cardinals season, it’s a simple proposition as we contemplate what they need to do as the season’s second half debuts tonight:

Play better at home. Play better against better teams. Play better against the teams that count. Play better fundamentally. And make a play in the player-acquisition market.

First things first, one through five:

No. 1: Play better at Busch

Not for nothing, the Cardinals have played the worst at home of any team with a winning record in 2016. And there is this: The only teams with worse home records than the Cardinals are the worst teams in baseball.

To wit: The Cardinals, 46-42 overall, are only 19-26 at home – giving them precisely as many losses at home as they had all last season, when they went 55-26 and tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best home mark in baseball.

That was then, this is now: The Cards’ 2016 home win-loss mark puts them in sorry company: Atlanta is 13-34 in its last year at Turner Field, and is last in the National League East at 31-58. Tony La Russa’s Arizona Diamondbacks are 15-32 at home, last in the National League West at 38-52. Cincinnati is 18-25 at home, last in the NL Central at 32-57.

The Los Angeles Angels of Aneheim and Albert Pujols are 16-26 at home, last in the American League West at 37-52. Tampa Bay is 18-28 at home and an AL East-worst 34-54 overall. Minnesota is 19-27 at home, last in the AL Central at 32-56.

Forget all those numbers, and remember this one: If the Cardinals had just reversed that home record – if they were 26-19 instead of the other way around – they’d be tied for first with the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central as the second-half of the season debuts tonight.

There’s no reason for this team to be stumbling so badly at home. There are 40,000 fans in the stands every night and the team has long had one of the best home marks in baseball – 491-318 (.610) at Busch in the ballpark’s first 10 years of operation, 173 games over .500 in the home whites from 2006-15.

Which brings us to:

No. 2: Play better against better teams

The Cardinals are only 17-28 (a .378 winning percentage) against clubs with winning records, including a 2-9 record against AL clubs and a 15-20 mark against NL teams sitting above the break-even mark.

The AL futility has been vexing, considering the Cardinals were 11-9 last year in interleague play, with a winning mark in three of the last four years that Mike Matheny’s teams have faced AL clubs.

But a handful of losses against AL teams don’t hurt like defeats against the Cardinals’ possible playoff competitors (if they were to get that far).

The 46-42 Cardinals, for instance, are 2-5 against NL East-leading Washington (54-36) and are 1-2 against the Los Angeles Dodgers (51-40) , second in the NL West and one of the teams they must overcome to entertain notions of a wild card berth. And in the next 17 days, the Cardinals will play 13 games against the Dodgers and two other wild card competitors – the Miami Marlins and New York Mets, each at 47-41, one win better than the Redbirds.

Until the Cardinals prove they belong on the field with the other top clubs in the NL, talk of October baseball is pretty much just that. Talk.

Which brings us to:

No. 3: Play better against their rivals

There’s just one way to characterize the Cardinals in the National League Central: The numbers aren’t bad against the bad clubs, not so good against the good.

The Redbirds can credit a sweep in Wrigley Field in June for their 5-4 record against the Cubs, who lead the division with a 53-35 record. But St. Louis is only 5-8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who at 46-43 are just a half-game back of the second-place Cardinals.

The Cardinals have fared better against 38-49 Milwaukee, with a 9-3 record head-to-head, and 32-57 Cincinnati, with a 4-2 winning edge.

But overall, the Cardinals are just 23-17 in the division, a far cry from their 46-30 mark in the Central a year ago. To close the gap with the Cubs, they’ll have to be better against their division foes, whom they face 36 times in the second half (with 23 of those games in September).

Which brings us to:

No 4: How to fix it

It’s not complicated: The Cardinals need to play like the team they think they are – part of one of the proudest franchises in baseball – and not like a ragtag grab bag of guys who can’t run the bases or catch the ball.

I was struck by this during a game telecast last week, when Cardinals analyst Rick Horton nearly did a happy dance as Kolten Wong went first-to-third on a basehit to right field.

Is this what we’re reduced to? Cheering when the Cardinals do what good teams are supposed to do, instead of accepting it as the proper course of events?

Ditto the defensive shortcomings: The team fielding is last in all of baseball – 30th of 30 teams – with the most errors of any team (68 in 88 games) and the worst fielding percentage at .980.

This for a team playing for a multiple Gold Glove catcher in the dugout and another behind the plate, a team that has prided itself on defense dating to the days of Ozzie Smith and beyond.

Bottom line: A team too often guilty of pratfalls afield and on the base paths needs to play cleaner, smarter, tougher baseball in the second half.

Which brings us to:

No. 5: Identify what they need – and add it

Will heralded franchise minor-league pitching prospect Alex Reyes make his major-league debut soon?

He is 2-1 with a 4.35 ERA at Class AAA Memphis, with an astonishing 61 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings pitched. But I wonder: Would the Cardinals opt for a short-term talent boost by sacrificing the long-term development of someone – Reyes is widely regarded as the game’s best pitching prospect – who could be a dominant starter for years?

Or will General Manager John Mozeliak mine the trade market before the deadline as he has done in years past, acquiring someone for a late-season boost, along the likes of a Matt Holliday, John Lackey or Rafael Furcal?

My guess: Mo will opt for some sort of pitching help, unless that comes in the person of Reyes’ promotion.

In either case, the Cardinals seem ripe for some sort of second-half talent boost, something to give them the edge they need to play far better in the second half than they did the first.

That second half begins Friday night. We shall see.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since the 1985 season. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or on Twitter @JoeOstermeier

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