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Cardinals enduring spring of discontent

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Mike Matheny at spring training

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny walks onto the field between innings of an intrasquad game on Feb. 29. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

JUPITER, Fla. • With the clock ticking, the losses mounting and some tension clearly simmering, the Cardinals reached the final four games of spring training still trying to put their game and team together, on the field and off.

A day that began with a lengthy meeting of the player leadership group climaxed with one of the sharpest games the Cardinals have played in weeks. In his final Grapefruit League start this spring, Carlos Martinez set a brisk, undeterred pace and led the Cardinals with six strong innings for a 3-1 victory against the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium. The win was only the Cardinals’ second in 14 games, and it came at a time when there was a palpable unease around the clubhouse.

Manager Mike Matheny referred to progress as “getting fine-tuned.”

Multiple factors contributed to the team’s recent feel, including word that beloved third-base coach Jose Oquendo could miss the season recovering from knee operations, and the Cardinals’ two-week run of lackluster games. Matheny also had held a series of prolonged player meetings, individually and in groups, to discuss clubhouse rules and concerns. There is the inherent stress of final roster cuts, and Matheny wondered if some of the wayward play was the result of the priority the Cardinals put on monitoring workloads this spring.

Fewer reps may explain the late-arriving crispness to the team’s game.

“We’ve got to see how it translates this week when we really get going,” said Matheny, whose club begins its defense of the National League Central crown Sunday against the Pirates. “If they come out like gangbusters as we start in Pittsburgh, it will look awfully good, right? But we’ve seen out here a couple times it hasn’t looked so good. If they’re not going out there getting a lot of repetitions of game-speed stuff it’s hard to get into that. We had a schedule kind of paced that this is the time where we go to get you game-speed at-bats to get your game-speed defense, and we’re hoping that works.”

It is not unusual for a team to have multiple meetings at this time of spring — talking logistics, opening weekend schedule, shipping cars — but the Cardinals have had many.

Matheny referred to his club as “not a big meeting team” Monday, yet he acknowledged they’ve had a lot of meetings in the past three days. Matheny and the Cardinals’ four core-men — Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter — missed all of batting practice Monday and spent several hours in a meeting. It is unusual for Matheny to miss all of BP.

Matheny explained that one of the reasons was to go through and sign rules required by Major League Baseball. The other reasons were internal, such as establishing clubhouse policies as well as addressing concerns that have recently surfaced about the clubhouse’s climate. Other players joined the meeting based on the issue, Matheny said, and he has sought to expand the leadership group at times.

During some individual and group meetings with players Saturday, Matheny said the conversations got “pretty raw.” He did not offer a specific example.

“Trying to figure out how we can maximize the influencers, that’s what it is,” Matheny said. “We take some feedback from some of the guys. What are we missing? How can we make things better? You open up that can of worms, you better be ready to sit down for a while. So we’re very committed to making things better, not content with what we’ve done and how we can make this a better atmosphere?”

Two veterans agreed a stride was taken in recent days.

One element of the past week was the individual needs of the players and how best to communicate them. After last year’s 100-win team faded late from fatigue, the Cardinals adjusted the spring schedule to reduce some of the drills they do. Matheny said the target was reducing the extra work and generally urging players to “just be aware” of when to ease off.

Molina had a schedule modified to help him recover from hand surgery. Holliday had a schedule similar to years past, while Carpenter had more of his work away from games. Reliever Seth Maness, one of the league-leaders in appearances last year, had his work this spring reduced. But he was unhappy with the behavior of his sinker and sought time on the minor league fields to throw three innings. He did — for effectiveness.

Matheny linked this past weekend’s five-error game to infielders only starting to get the game-speed reps necessary for finer play.

“If we keep kicking five balls a game, is that (the schedule) a target?” Matheny said. “It’s somewhere I’ll go. OK, do we need to make sure that we’re just pounding, pounding and hoping that they survive? That’s the other option. Trying to find that happy medium. I think it’s just trying to change the thinking process of everybody and sometimes it’s not real well accepted. But it’s going to be that way all season.”

That’s part of the inspiration for the meetings now.

It’s going be the same clubhouse all season. Better to set standards now.

The day that began on the losing streak ended on an up note. Offense continues to lag behind for the Cardinals, but three runs were enough for Martinez. Reliever Jordan Walden pitched a strong inning, hit 95 mph with his fastball, and, for a day, allayed concerns of his health. Coaches Bill Mueller and David Bell ran the defense’s position for the first time since Oquendo’s medical leave. And when asked if he left the ballpark Monday feeling better than when he arrived, Matheny offered a reason.

“We won,” he said.

• Hochman: Oquendo news is a real downer

 Cardinals notebook: Martinez is in command against Mets

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