The St. Louis Cardinals have gone through a 15-game stretch when they’ve scored more than three runs just five times, yet they’ve won eight of those games. So despite near panic that the lineup has forgotten how to hit, the team is still winning ballgames mostly because the starting pitchers have been terrific to start the season.
The starting rotation likely won’t continue to pitch with a historically low 2.15 earned-run average, which was the fourth-lowest starters ERA for April in franchise history, but there are several reasons to believe the offense will start scoring many more runs on a consistent basis.
Third baseman David Freese is currently in a horrible slump, hitting just .163 with no homeruns and three RBIs, and centerfielder Jon Jay is hitting .213 with two homeruns and eight RBIs. Those sound like great numbers compared to Freese, but the Cardinals need at least average production from both of those spots to contend in the National League Central Division.
The other aspect of this situation is the Cardinals’ opponents. The Cardinals have faced arguably four of the six toughest non-divisional opponents in April, the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals, and every NL Central team they’ve played has a winning record.
This isn’t going to be an easy season no matter how well the Cardinals play. Sure, the Cardinals could have four or five more wins already if the bullpen hadn’t been horrible to start the season, but chances are slim the Cardinals are going to go on any long winning streaks this season. The competition is just too good.
The Pittsburgh Pirates took two of three games from the Cardinals last weekend as A.J. Burnett threw another quality start Saturday, and rookie Jeff Locke shut them down Sunday (which isn’t surprising given the Cardinals typical struggles against left-handed pitchers, especially ones they haven’t faced before).
Then the Cincinnati Reds visited Busch Stadium for a very well-pitched series in which Reds starter Homer Bailey was the only starting pitcher to give up more than two runs in the three-game series when the Cardinals scored four against him Wednesday.
Those types of games are unquestionably difficult to watch when the Cardinals lose, but they are well-played games nonetheless. The offense does need to produce more runs, but good pitching has always beaten good hitting, and thankfully the Cardinals have good pitching.
Also, several Cardinals hitters are unlikely to stay stuck in their slumps.
Freese and Jay have proven throughout their careers they are good hitters who can make significant contributions to a lineup. Freese has a career .290 batting average, including his poor start to the 2013 season, and Jay is a career .294 hitter who has shown recent signs of life at the plate with three hits in a recent series against the Pirates.
Plus, the Cardinals schedule lightens up a bit in May. They will face the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets and San Diego Padres, which are already a combined 17 games under .500, for nine games in the next month. By comparison, the Cardinals’ April opponents are a combined 10 games over .500 as they head into May.
So although it’s easy to look at the winnable games the Cardinals lost in May, they should win more of those types of games this month because the schedule will be a little easier and, based on career averages, the offense should begin to produce more runs, especially against teams with weaker pitching staffs.
That all sets up what could be a fun month of baseball so long as the Cardinals avoid injuries, which isn’t a guarantee. This is the point in the season when they lost Allen Craig, Lance Berkman and Matt Carpenter to injuries for extended time in 2012.
The NL Central is too good this season for the Cardinals to jump out to a large lead, but St. Louis fans should be confident their team will still be at or near the top of the division by the time the calendar turns to June.