The St. Louis Cardinals got into the win column Sunday with a solid pitching performance from Luke Weaver and an impressive day at the plate from slugger Marcell Ozuna, center fielder Tommy Pham and shortstop Paul DeJong.
It was a nice win. But the first two games of the season showed that the Redbirds can’t afford to sit back and wait for home runs if they’re going to win on a consistent basis. They need to keep working on their fundamentals and all-around game not only to win now — but also to develop younger players to perform to the best of their ability.
St. Louis showed some of the sloppy play that plagued the team the last two years in its first two games this season. In the first pair of contests, the Birds batsmen piled up strikeouts in bunches, failed to move base runners up, played mediocre defense and didn’t look great running the bases.
I’m sure coaches Jose Oquendo and Willie McGee can’t correct all the problems that have cropped up in a month or two of practice. But I hope they don’t give up because playing just a little bit smarter could easily be the difference between winning and losing.
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Pham has pretty openly been miffed this year about being renewed at just above the major league minimum after his breakthrough 2017 season. I can see where he’s coming from because he has the talent to be an exceptional player. But, if he truly wants to be great, he needs to play smart instead of letting his emotions and his instincts get in the way.
An example came Saturday when the New York Mets had a runner at third and the batter lofted a lazy fly ball to left center. Ozuna, who has a reputation as a great thrower, was camped underneath the ball with his momentum coming forward, ready to throw a ball to the plate that would have likely forced the runner to stay put when Pham came tearing out of nowhere a la Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears to intercept the ball with his momentum going away from the plate. As a result, he made a lousy throw, it cost the Cardinals an important run and a game that was still in reach slipped away.
I was listening to the Mets broadcast on the radio and the announcers were incredulous about why Pham would do such a silly and selfish thing.
It seemed like Pham was trying too hard to be the superstar when he didn’t have the best play on the ball. I should say that I heard a report after the game that suggested Ozuna has an arm issue and Pham may have been trying to help him. But, when I saw the replay later, it sure looked like Ozuna was surprised to see Pham arrive on the scene when he was trying to do his job. Regardless, there are other examples of the Cardinals — and other teams — playing like individuals instead of as part of a team.
The team strikes out too much and hits into double plays too often to kill scoring opportunities. It seems like hitting the ball behind the runner is becoming a lost art. I’m not asking players to give away outs with bunts over and over again. But there are just as many hits in right center field as there are in left center field. Manager Mike Matheny seems to be allergic to hit and run plays.
St. Louis fans have taken a lot of grief over the past couple of years because of the (incorrect) use of the phrase The Cardinals Way. So, it seems like the team got away from the original meaning of the words.
Doing things The Cardinals Way wasn’t a hollow claim about being somehow intellectually superior to the competition. It was about working on the fundamentals and the nuances of the game to give St. Louis players a competitive advantage on the field. The Cardinals have always had players who did the little things right to win games — Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr, Keith Hernandez, Frank Frisch, Ken Boyer, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen. The list goes on and on.
It may not be cool to play that style of baseball these days. People are more interested in launch angle than honing their baseball IQ. But the Houston Astros might be the best fundamental team in baseball right now. And they’re smart, aggressive play has made them the best team in baseball.