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BenFred: Goldschmidt, Arenado are MVP caliber for Cardinals. Lineup above them has to do more.

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Cardinals v Brewers

St. Louis Cardinals infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado celebrate a 3-1 win on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, over the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. 

The Cardinals’ big two did it again Friday night in a series-opening win against the Brewers.

Paul Goldschmidt homered, sending the Cardinals ahead 2-0 in the first inning.

Nolan Arenado homered, expanding the lead to 3-0 in the sixth and providing insurance that came in handy when the Brewers scored a run in the seventh.

Manager Oliver Marmol and players not named Goldschmidt and Arenado are running out of ways to praise the seasons the All-Star corner infielders are hammering out together.

What Marmol must continue to try to do is come up with ways to make sure the two-man wrecking crew does as much damage as possible.

Goldschmidt and Arenado are crushing it at the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in Marmol’s lineup.

Leadoff and the No. 2 spot are leaving a lot to be desired.

Goldschmidt and Arenado are heavyweight headliners.

Their opening act is crickets.

The Cardinals’ leadoff OPS (.607) ranks 27th in the majors and 14th in the National League. Detroit, Washington and Oakland are the only teams with a lower leadoff OPS than the Cardinals. All three are in last place in their respective divisions.

At the No. 2 spot, the Cardinals have a season-long OPS of .837. That ranks fifth in baseball and second in the NL. Good news!

Not so fast. That’s a misleading read for this specific conversation, because Goldschmidt started the season hitting second and stayed there pretty regularly through early June. Marmol moved Goldschmidt to third for good (at least for now, it seems) on June 10. Since then, the Cardinals’ No. 2 spot has produced an OPS of .715. That ranks 24th in the majors and fourth-lowest in the NL during that span.

Since June 10, the Cardinals' combined OPS from the top two lineup spots is just .636. That ranks 28th in the majors and second-to-last in the NL. And when you look at those two spots since June 10 against specifically right-handed pitching, where the Cardinals really tend to struggle, the OPS drops to .608.

You get the picture. It’s not pretty. But how does it improve? Probably by tabling the notion that one player is going to be an every-day answer at this point. Assembling the right blend of multiple options depending on the game’s circumstance is probably the better bet.

For leadoff duties in Friday’s win, Marmol went back to center fielder Dylan Carlson against Milwaukee left-hander Eric Lauer. Some fans grumbled about turning away from leadoff hopeful Lars Nootbaar, who hit ninth. But the switch-hitting Carlson’s batting line against lefties reads .313 with a .375 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage. The left-handed hitting Nootbaar’s batting line against lefties reads .231/.313/.346.

Carlson worked a walk in Friday’s first inning before Goldschmidt brought him home with home run No. 28. He singled to lead off the third, but was stranded at second when the inning ended. A strikeout and a groundout followed.

Marmol sounds poised to play the splits moving forward.

"The goal, right now, is to find some consistency at the top of the order to get on base for Goldy and Nolan, and the rest of that group," Marmol said before the game. "Whatever makes the most sense from a matchup standpoint is what we will go with rather than committing to, here's our leadoff guy. I think it's only fair to the overall process."

Marmol said batting right-handed hitting Tyler O’Neill second against a southpaw starter could hopefully accomplish two things. It could give O’Neill a chance to see better pitches because he was hitting in front of Goldschmidt and Arenado. And it would hopefully maximize O’Neill’s production against left-handed pitching. While he has been unable to maintain his wildly impressive numbers from last season – he slashed .289/.388/.639 against southpaws that year – O’Neill has still performed better against lefties (.289/.353/.400) than righties (.205/.271/.330) in 2022. O’Neill’s fifth-inning walk was not enough to overshadow another frustrating night. He’s averaging .172 with a .274 on-base percentage and a .297 slugging percentage since his mid-July return from injury. O'Neill is healthy, Marmol reiterated Friday, but his timing remains off at the plate. Frustration is building.

"This is a guy that, when you are constructing your roster at the beginning of the year, he's provided you 34 homers with a .912 OPS," Marmol said. "You are counting on that being in the middle of the order, doing something similar to that. So, we constructed the roster with him doing that. That was the hope. In order for us to do what we need to do, he's got to be a good version of Tyler."

This is the point of the season where hitters who are not getting it done lose their chance to stop a manager from beginning to pull levers and push buttons in attempts to manage around under-performance.

For Marmol, that could mean even more lineup fluidity moving forward. Especially when right-handed hitting Juan Yepez, who has strong numbers against right-handed pitching, is declared ready for his return from a rehab assignment. What was once a conversation about treating right field as a platoon place after the trade of Harrison Bader could expand to both corner spots, at least.

For the front office, it could mean embracing the 40-man roster manipulation required to give a hitter like Alec Burleson a shot, finally. The 22-year-old Class-AAA thumper, it should be noted, has a .974 OPS against right-handed pitching in Memphis so far this season.

Goldschmidt and Arenado could realistically finish first and second in the NL MVP race. But unless they’re going to start hitting first and second in Marmol’s lineup to maximize the number of at-bats they can receive, the Cardinals have to find some improved ways to maximize the duo’s damage. Watching home runs from both in the same game is fun, but it can’t be counted on every time. It’s only happened seven times this season, believe it or not, and the Cardinals only won six of those games.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the names that could take the Cardinals pitching staff from solid, to special. None loom larger than Jack Flaherty, who is on track for a late return.

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