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Cincinnati Reds vs St. Louis Cardinals

Matt Carpenter grimaces after fouling off a ball in the third inning during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Thursday, June 6, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Not one to mask how he really feels, whether it’s his exuberance during a feverish rally, his warmth for a former teammate, or his profanity-spiked anger about another catcher’s injury, Cardinals leader Yadier Molina became downright smitten with the Blues during the NHL playoffs. He had predictions for each round (often nailed it), attended what games he could, was a regular on the scoreboard when he did, and, in the Stanley Cup Final, showed up in solidarity, wearing the sweater of a suspended Blues player.

A fan of hockey since he first saw it in St. Louis, Molina said there was something more driving this passion, something he sensed about the Blues early in the championship run, something he wanted to be around.

Because he’s missed it.

Each day the Cardinals get farther away from their last postseason appearance, Molina is one day nearer the end of his career, and at some point in the past year the calendar crossed the threshold: He’s closer to his autumn than the last time the Cardinals were in baseball’s.

“I want to live that moment again,” Molina said. “Three years is a long time. I’m getting close to the end. All I want in my mind and all I want in my heart is to win. I would do anything to win. So, yeah, it’s important. We’ve got the guys who can do it. The urgency is there. I trust my teammates. I trust this team. Even when people don’t believe in us, we’re going to prove them wrong.”

At Busch Stadium on Friday, the Cardinals open the second half of their 128th season in the National League about the same place they started it, just with fewer games to prove themselves and the absence of three leading players, Molina (hand), Marcell Ozuna (hand), and Jordan Hicks (elbow). At 44-44 with 44 games remaining against division foes, the Cardinals are not a winning team or a losing team. They’re a middling team. They’ve scored two more runs than they’ve allowed. They’re two games back in National League Central. They are in the middle of the division race (third place), the middle of the NL (eighth-best winning percentage), and arguably in the worst place to be for a franchise, in the middle, neither tanking nor cranking.

From this perch, the Cardinals are a waning presence, an empire past decline. The last noise they made in the playoffs no longer echoes, and despite 11 consecutive winning seasons, their prominence has faded. This past week around Cleveland, at the 90th All-Star Game, the Cardinals were not featured in the promotional banners, logos, or posters around town. The Cubs have the charisma. The Brewers have the MVP. The Pirates have the new new thing in slugger Josh Bell. The Cardinals had the commissioner select their representative when fans and peers didn’t. Out of sight in October, out of mind.

“It means we’re kind of teetering,” said shortstop Paul DeJong, the 2019 team’s All-Star. “That doesn’t say we can’t push ourselves over the edge. … Lots of ups and downs. As a group we started really well. We kind of let it slip a bit, lost our edge and our focus. Despite everything that has happened we’re still a couple of games out. For us, that’s a huge reminder of how good we can be and how close this really is for us to take.”

The Cardinals begin the second half with 17 games in the next 17 days, 11 against division foes, seven against the fourth-place Pirates.

By bringing Arizona in for the first series back from the All-Star break, the schedule gives the Cardinals a chance to face, midway through the summer, their defining move of their winter. The Cardinals acquired six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks in exchange for a package of young players that included catcher Carson Kelly and starter Luke Weaver. Kelly has hit .279 with a .904 OPS, 10 homers, and 24 extra-base hits in 165 at-bats for Arizona this season, and Weaver has steadied himself with a 3.03 ERA in 11 starts. After a powerful start that included a three-homer game in his second as a Cardinal, Goldschmidt spent most of the first half searching. His .769 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging) this season has shaved his career OPS down from .930 to .917.

“I’ve got to look at myself,” Goldschmidt said on the team’s final road trip of the first half. “I haven’t done a good enough job to win this first half.”

That sentiment fits all of the Cardinals’ significant investments. Including the five-year, $130-million extension reached with Goldschmidt toward the end of spring training, the Cardinals committed $237 million and 11 years in extensions to their first baseman, third baseman Matt Carpenter, and starter Miles Mikolas. All are in their 30s, and all have underperformed their expectations this season. Mikolas’ ERA has swollen by nearly two runs, and his inconsistent innings reflect the rotation’s. Like Goldschmidt, Carpenter struggled through a career-low slog, batting .216 with a .706 OPS as he returns Friday from the injured list. With him usually there, the Cardinals’ leadoff spot has been the least-productive in the National League, and the offense has reflected that.

Their “check engine” light has been flashing all season.

Could be the sparkplugs.

“If we score, we’ll win this division playing this same caliber of baseball,” manager Mike Shildt said during the team’s optional workout Thursday at Busch. “We need to get that offense going, crank up a fair amount of runs. Do some damage out there.”

Only Cincinnati has a lower average in the division than the Cardinals’ .244 and a lower OPS than the Cardinals’ .720. Only four teams in the majors have a punier slugging percentage than the Cardinals’ .401, and those four teams combine for a .374 winning percentage. They are three of the worst teams in baseball. The Cardinals’ power drain comes at the same time almost half the teams in baseball are on pace to set franchise records for home runs. The majors are on pace to produce 6,668 homers this season — a 20 percent increase from 2018.

The Cardinals are on pace to hit 197, eight fewer than 2018.

The Cardinals have the 10th-best ERA in baseball, the fourth-best bullpen and second-best in the NL, and they rank high in advanced metrics that measure baserunning and defense. A year ago they led the league in errors and sabotaged themselves with poor baserunning. They have sharpened every complementary facet of their play, and yet a dull offense has undermined the improvements. It capsized the Cardinals’ 20-10 start. The lack of thump, the lack of consistent threats, the lack of — just the lacking has a cascade effect.

“If we score a lot of runs, it takes pressure off the starter, which means maybe he can throw an extra inning, which helps the relievers,” Goldschmidt said. “It’s a snowball effect. When it doesn’t — which has been happening too much lately — we don’t score and it puts more pressure on the starter, then more on the bullpen, and it makes everyone’s job a little tougher. It is going to take that team effort because of how it does snowball. If we can get going in the right direction we’ve got a good chance to find a way to get into the playoffs.”

“Consistent is the word,” Molina said. “More consistent about everything.”

With a rigid trade deadline this season of July 31, many teams, like Arizona, intend to use the next two weeks to determine where they fit in the market, buyer or seller. The Cardinals have not been a true seller in more than 20 years, but they haven’t been a big buyer in 10. A year ago, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak described the Cardinals, at a similar spot in the standings, as “not hitting by any means on all cylinders and trying to figure out why is part of my job.” Pressure is mounting on the front office to provide that answer and not spend another trade deadline hitting the snooze button. In a bunched-up division, the winner could be determined by the front office as much as any inning pitched or bat swung.

Molina insisted he feels his urgency is shared.

He’s not the only one tired of waiting.

“That thing you’re talking about, that you’re asking me about — the urgency,” Molina said. “It’s there. It’s all there. This is a different team now.”

The route to October is paved with 74 games, including 22 at home against division rivals. Eight of their 22 road games in the division are in Cincinnati. They have 25 games remaining against the two teams beneath them in the standings, the Reds (41-46) and Pittsburgh (44-45), nine against second-place Milwaukee (47-44), and 10 against the first-place Cubs (47-43). The Cardinals’ final five series are all against teams that currently have a better record than them, and seven of their final 10 games are against the Cubs. They will either contend — or be a part of a coronation, again.

To win 90 games — if it takes that many to win the division — the Cardinals must play their remaining 74 at a .622 pace, the equivalent of a 101-win season.

Simply, to be their best they need their best to be better.

“It’s great for me to say I believe we can do it, I believe I can do it, but really the more powerful thing for us is our actions,” Goldschmidt concluded. “We can sit here and have that confidence but we have to go out there and play with it. That is what people will remember — how we play. And that’s what we’re going to remember, ultimately. Our destiny is not what we say, it’s how we go out there and perform.”

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