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Cardinals work out after All Star break

Cardinal catcher Matt Wieters talks with assistant batting coach Mark Budaska (right) during a workout out at Busch Stadium on July 11. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Pirates, Royals and Reds.

Oh, sigh.

If a three-game home sweep of Pittsburgh to start a tissue-paper soft swath of the schedule failed to convince you all is well with the Cardinals, you were not the only one.

Ask assistant hitting coach Mark Budaska, who lost his job Monday. The respected bat whisperer, credited by many players on this roster for saving their swings at different points in their careers, humbly served the organization for more than a decade, mostly in the minor leagues. His ejection was announced with a two-sentence news release. Some sendoff.

It’s easy (and right) to read Budaska’s dismissal as the Cardinals deciding to double down on the direction established by first-year hitting coach Jeff Albert. Time will tell if that’s the right move or if Albert winds up going the way of Budaska, who wound up going the way of John Mabry.

Results under Albert have been underwhelming so far. The Cardinals rank 13th in the National League in runs per game (4.47), 12th in home runs per contest (1.25), 13th in batting average (.244), 12th in on-base percentage (.316) and 13th in slugging percentage (.407). You don't have to be an analytics ace to read these numbers. They're bad.

If the coach nicknamed “Buddha” was clashing with Albert and leading hitters down a different path, then results should improve now, right? Especially during this stretch of games. The schedule gods have given a gift to the Cardinals. Albert, unchallenged, could appear to be enlightened.

It would be easy (and wrong) to misread the Cardinals as surging contenders if they churn through this nine-game stretch against Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Cincinnati. These three losing opponents woke up Monday morning with a combined record of 147-205.

And this stretch is just an appetizer.

Only 19 of the Cardinals' remaining 46 regular-season games come against teams that entered Monday with more wins than losses. Dessert is served first, with 24 games against non-winning teams in the Cardinals’ next 33.

Sprinkled throughout what has the makings of one very upbeat month of Cardinals baseball is a reality check, dressed in navy blue. The Cardinals' nine games against contending teams during the stretch happen to be against the same team, your defending National League Central champion Brewers. The rival is a half-game behind the second-place Cardinals in the Central standings, and the closest competitor to freeing the Cardinals' hold (for now) on the National League's second wild-card spot.

We know the Cardinals can beat bad teams. They are 31-20 against teams that are below .500.

We know they can't consistently beat good teams. They’re 30-35 against teams that are above. 500.

We know they can't consistently beat the Brewers. They’re .500 against Milwaukee.

The Brewers, like the division-leading Cubs, are a good team. But like every National League Central hopeful, they are vulnerable. Their pitching always is a question-mark. Lorenzo Cain is having a lost season. They have made up for their weaknesses with a division-leading 188 home runs and the performance of reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich, who reportedly will return to the lineup Tuesday after a back issue. His team is going to need him.

The Brewers, unlike the Cardinals, are cursing this current section of their schedule. Their two-game date with the Twins starting Tuesday night kicks off a stretch of 23 consecutive games against non-losing teams. Milwaukee receives just a four-game reprieve against the lowly Marlins before its final regular-season series against the Cardinals, which will be played at Busch Stadium.

Surrounding the regular-season's three remaining series between the Cardinals and Brewers, Milwaukee plays six of its seven other series against teams that on Monday sat in first or second place in their respective divisions. The Cardinals' seven non-Brewers series during that span come against six teams that as of Monday sat in fourth or fifth.

Runs and wins should come easier for the Cardinals during this sunny stretch. The schedule is begging them to surge until September's uphill finish, one that is littered with games against the Cubs.

The Brewers loom as speed bumps.

Another season finished behind them in the standings, and the Cardinals will need to consider refreshing more than a longtime and loyal hitting instructor.

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