The conundrum of the St. Louis offense

It seems to be one of the great mysteries in Major League Baseball this year: The St. Louis Cardinals have one of the top offenses both on paper and statistically, yet they go through stretches where they can hardly score at all. And though there really is no good time for a team in the middle of a playoff race to slump, the Cards have become really good at maximizing their bad timing skills relative to what the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are doing.

After sweeping the Milwaukee Brewers last weekend and winning the first game against the San Francisco Giants Monday, the Cards have dropped three of four and only scored a total of six runs in the process. This stumble came as the Reds were in the throes of a five game losing streak, and as the division leaders got back into the win column Friday night, the Cards lost another game by giving up runs late. Playing the woulda-coulda-shoulda game helps no one, but the Cardinals had their best chance to make up some ground in the NL Central this week. Instead, they are six games back with Cliff Lee and Vance Worley still to face this weekend.

What is it the Cards need to avoid these stretches of three, four, five games where they can’t average two runs per game? Part of it—at least this week—is the opposing pitching. Facing guys like Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Roy Halladay is never going to be easy. But then again, Monday night the Cards hung five earned runs in 5.2 innings on Matt “Mr. Perfecto” Cain.

The Cardinal offense looks much different with Lance Berkman out and Rafael Furcal ailing. True, they have other players that can fill those vacated roles if and when needed. But as those pieces slide into place, the bench thins considerably. And a presence bat from the right side is sorely needed in on the Cards’ roster.

Another thing they can do is play smarter ball. That joke of a play Friday night where Carlos Beltran got picked off to end the game cannot happen. The “fake to third, look to first” play is so lame MLB is outlawing it for next year. Yet Beltran—representing the tying run at first base, with David Freese at the plate—falls for it to end the game. This isn’t Wiffle Ball, ‘Los.

And for that matter, perhaps Mike Matheny needs to be thinking a little more in the dugout as well. Why not a pinch runner for Beltran in that situation? Certainly the Cards had faster guys on their bench, and Beltran’s run was the most important one.

Regardless, the dearth of runs this week is telling. Yes, the Cardinals are dealing with injuries as they have all season. And yes, they are still in the thick of the playoff race. But do they have enough to make it to game 163 and beyond as currently constructed? Right now they’re 2.5 games out of a playoff spot, which seems so close. But looking at the offense this week, they seem so far away.

The questions are valid and the answers aren’t coming easily. Good hitters don’t just fall from the sky and appear on the roster; deals have to be made and they are even more difficult to pull off in August. The Cards have to find ways to score more runs and avoid beating themselves. There is plenty of time to secure a playoff spot. But do the Cards have what it takes?

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter @birdbrained.

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