Halfway through the season, the St. Louis Cardinals are halfway to being a good baseball team.
Half of their games, wins. Half of their games, losses. A team that is largely boring and half-baked.
Which leaves the Cardinals in a predicament that is both tiring and maddening for their fans: Just good enough to hope they can be better, just bad enough to prevent that from happening.
As the season nears the All-Star Break, we’ve seen this show before — the last 3 ½ years, to be precise — and nothing the team has done has seemed to make any difference.
Mike Matheny, fired. Mike Shildt, suddenly sounding a lot like his predecessor, at turns defensive yet hopeful for a turnaround.
Paul Goldschmidt, acquired and signed to a five-year, $130 million deal this March, only to be mired at this moment in the worst slump of his career.
Much the same for Miles Mikolas, who turned a good 2018 season into a four-year, $68 million extension this spring, a deal that now looks far too precipitous on John Mozeliak’s part.
Ditto for the two-year, $39-million extension Mo handed in early April to Matt Carpenter, an acknowledged slow starter in spring who has seen those struggles extend to the summer solstice and beyond.
And don’t forget the five-year, $82.5 million deal unwisely handed Dexter Fowler three years ago; he has been marginally better this season but still a disappointment.
That’s saying something for a Cardinals lineup that has one regular (Jose Martinez) hitting better than .265 — and seven hitting .260 or below.
The rotation has been uninspiring as well, with the three veterans in the rotation — Mikolas, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha —posting ERAs of 4.345, 4.35 and 5.30, respectively.
(We began the season fretting the Cardinals would have to rely too much on their veteran pitchers and Fowler, and those fears proved true.)
Add in a bullpen that’s been inconsistent and now crippled by a season-ending torn elbow ligament for closer Jordan Hicks — who didn’t see that coming from an arm that produces an average pitch exceeding 100 mph? — and you have a team that would try any fan’s patience.
It’s gotten so bad, a spirited defense of the club from the normally mild-mannered Shildt produced headlines and backlash from a fanbase that, until 2016, had reached October baseball in 12 of the previous 16 seasons. Since then, nada, zilch, zip.
On May 1, the Cardinals were 20-10. Since then, they are 21-31. And stuck in a spin cycle that has keep them mired near the .500 mark and a vexing handful of games out of the National League Central lead.
The expectations, from fans and media like, are far greater than that.
“I didn’t feel like there was a lot of credit for this team when we were the best team in baseball,” Shildt told reporters at Busch Stadium a couple weeks ago. “There weren’t a lot of people saying tremendously positive things about us. Candidly … I don’t understand the mentality. We’re 2 ½ games out of first place and I swear it feels like we’re walking around and haven’t done a thing right. I scratch my head about it every day.”
But Shildt knows this: The beauty of baseball is there’s no mystery to it.
You play enough games to show your true worth, to find your real level of play. And halfway through the 2019 season, that Cardinals have done just enough to be an average baseball team.
But ... but ...
“We lead this league in stolen bases and percentage,” Shildt said when he took to his team’s defense. “We hit and run. We play the game the way people want, the Whitey Ball. We play our ball, the smart ball. The season’s not over. Give us a chance to win the world championship. Patience is thin. But gosh darn, we’re 2 ½ games out.”
The Cardinals only have to look west down Clark Street, toward the Enterprise Center, to find a team that was in worse shape far later in its season than the Cardinals are. From worst in January to first in June, the St. Louis Blues became the Cinderella team in hockey this year, winning 28 of 41 games in the season’s second half before capping their playoff run with a seven-game Stanley Cup finale win over the Boston Bruins.
Can lightning strike twice in the same town? In the same year?
I’d say the chances are, well, half-baked.