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It’s tough to believe in a St. Louis Cardinals team that can’t get over the .500 mark

I don’t know what it is about the .500 mark that unnerves the St. Louis Cardinals.

Four times in the last eight days, the Redbirds have found themselves in a position to finally reach the break even point. To get over the hump and try to make a run at the top of the National League Central Division, which is still within sight. Each time the team has fallen short, outscored 16-4 in those games.

This team sure doesn’t seem to have much killer instinct.

In the past, it had guys like Chris Carpenter and Matt Holliday in the mix. Those guys didn’t care for losing very much. And they weren’t willing to accept what they considered to be less than a 100 percent effort from their teammates. The current Cardinals squad has a bunch of guys who seem like they’re decent — if not great — ballplayers. But they don’t seem to have a laser-beam focus on winning ballgames at all costs. There are too many guys who just seem happy to be collecting a big league paycheck.

A few years back, when then general manager John Mozeliak sent popular players Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to the Boston Red Sox for grouchy starting pitcher John Lackey, he said the move was made to shake up a clubhouse that had become too comfortable. Well, those 2013 Cardinls players are strictly amateurs compared to the 2017 edition of the team’s ability to take it easy.

It sickens me to think about how many games the Birds have lost because of their inability to make a routine defensive play, because they ran into an utterly stupid out on the bases, because they couldn’t hit behind the runner or hit a fly ball with a man standing on third base and less than two outs or because a pitcher gave up a two-strike hit. I’d bet the farm that it would make at least 10 games difference in the standings if the Cardinals played with the intensity of an average major league squad. And that’s the difference between being 4.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs in third place and being 5.5 games ahead of Chicago in first.

You can bet, if the Cardinals were in first place under the deadline that they would have somehow found a way to complete a trade or two to bolster the weak points of this team. We’d be living in a whole different world right now. Instead, even the people who put together this roster have lost faith in the club and figure it’s better to let it die a quick death than invest future talent into trying to keep it alive.

I’m glad the team has been able to hang onto its high end prospects. But as I was complaining a year ago, that doesn’t change the fact that this team is completely devoid of elite players. It needs veterans who know how to win and who aren’t content to watch their teammates go through the motions. It needs guys who can help lead the young players by example and inspire them to get tougher, stronger and more hungry to win.

For Alex Reyes, Harrison Bader, Luke Weaver, Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk, Steven Piscotty, Paul DeJong and Carson Kelly, the ultimate goal is no longer the make it to the major leagues. They’ve all already been there and done that. The goal is to take it to another level and become championship players, people who had significant careers and who can stick around.

In a lot of ways, the wrong kind of pressure has been put on the kids because they’re being asked to do it all on an unbalanced team instead of being allowed to simply be contributors. DeJong, a guy who has been in the majors for only a few weeks, last month became the first Cardinals rookie shortstop to bat third in the lineup since Red Schoendienst did it in 1945. It’s a tough assignment for a kid who strikes out a third of the time he comes to the plate and eight times as often as he walks. Imagine if the Cardinals last off-season would have signed a couple of sluggers for the middle of the batting order and DeJong could bat seventh or eighth. In those spots, his unusual power for a middle infielder would be a bonus and you could live with the fact that he has trouble keeping his on base percentage at .300 or better. In the third spot, it’s a liability — and he’s been in such a slump the past few days that the Cardinals had to again resort to batting Matt Carpenter third. We’ve all accepted the fact that he’s allergic to batting there. For reasons that make absolutely no sense, Carpenter is a .221 hitter batting third and a .295 batter leading off.

It puts the season in a frustrating nutshell to see that the Birds can’t reach down deep and find a little bit more production and effort in these games when they’re on the brink of the .500 mark. My opinion of this club hasn’t changed watching it the last two years: This is a club full of complementary players. But there isn’t one exceptional all-around position player in the bunch.

Prove us wrong. Show us you’re better than we think you are, Cardinals. You can start by reaching the .500 mark.