St. Louis Cardinals bring roller-coaster offense into 2013 season

The St. Louis Cardinals finished second in the National League in hitting last season, but they also had plenty of stretches when the lineup didn’t score more than two runs, even when the pitching staff threw a great game.

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And that trend has already continued into 2013.

The San Francisco Giants scored just one unearned run Friday off of Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook, who threw a very solid 6.2 innings and pitched well enough to earn a win, but the Cardinals couldn’t score any runs off of Giants starter Barry Zito and lost the game 1-0.

Yes, Zito is the same lefthanded pitcher who shut the Cardinals down in Game Five of the 2012 National League Championship Series, but the Cardinals have already shown signs of a team that will go through weeks when it struggles mightily to score a run, while other weeks it hits homers at an incredible rate.

In just the first four games of the season, the Cardinals scored 15 of their 17 runs in two games. They were held to two runs by Arizona Diamondbacks starter Ian Kennedy in the season opener, and then Zito and the Giants shut them out Friday.

This pattern is certain to cause frustration among fans who see starts such as Westbrook’s Friday outing wasted because the offense can’t score.

It’s also not a prototypical pattern of success. In fact, it was one of the biggest reasons the Giants beat the Cardinals in seven games in last year’s NLCS. No pitching staff is going to be able to carry an offense that scores one run in the final three games of that series.

The Cardinals actually scored 52 runs combined in their seven playoff wins last season, but they scored just five runs in their six losses.

And that one day hot, one day not syndrome carried into 2013. The Cardinals even showed inconsistency at the plate during the month of spring training games. They scored seven or more runs in nine of their 16 wins and scored three or fewer runs in 12 of their 15 losses.

Those numbers show the offense might be the most important factor for the Cardinals this season. Sure, the pitching staff has to pitch quality games more often than not, but the numbers say the Cardinals win-loss record is primarily defined by how well the offense hits.

When the Cardinals hit the ball well, they win. When they don’t, they lose.

That’s a pretty simple formula, but it’s also a scary one since the Cardinals have injury-prone hitters such as Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and David Freese as important pieces of their lineup.

Beltran is playing through a fractured toe and has had trouble moving in the first week, Craig nearly injured his knee again by sliding into a wall in Arizona and Freese started the season on the disabled list with a back injury.

Those issues have surely played a part in the offense’s early struggles, and none of those figure to be major problems for the Cardinals throughout the season. Freese’s return by, hopefully, Monday’s home opener against the Cincinnati Reds will help, but the entire offense is going to have to be more consistent throughout the course of the season.

That means they’ll likely have to score more runs by playing small ball and moving a runner along the bases without getting a hit. Craig and Matt Holliday did a great job of manufacturing a run in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Diamondbacks, which also happened to be the Cardinals only win of the season heading into play Saturday.

Centerfielder Jon Jay led off the inning with a double, Holliday then grounded out to second base to advance Jay to third and Craig followed with another groundout to score Jay.

The big homeruns and innings filled with bunches of runs might be fun to watch, just as a roller-coaster is fun to ride, but the steady, consistent innings that produce a run or two every day will more likely determine the Cardinals final record.

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