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Cardinals host Padres in home opener

Cardinal infielder Paul DeJong rounds the bases after hitting a 4th inning single home run on Friday, April 5, 2019, during the opening day game against the San Diego Padres at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

The fans exited up the Busch Stadium stairs like college kids mercifully leaving a boring lecture, weary and wondering — what was that they just endured? One couple in Section 349 had to force some smiles for a goodbye selfie with the field behind them. Cardinals opening day was dreary — the weather, too.

Besides Paul DeJong and Paul Goldschmidt, the rest of the Cards were like pallbearers of this supposed offense.

Four hits. Three runs. Two walks. One loss.

“Everyone is excited for a new season,” said DeJong, who tied with three other Cardinals on Friday for a team-high one hit. “We’ve got to remember that it’s still early April. We’re playing these games tough. I think the will of our team will pay off in the end.”

That’ll be the mantra for the month. It’s early. This team is veteran-laden. But the Cards (3-4) are still searching for their offensive identity — and are losing close game after close game in the process.

When it’s not the excessive strikeouts, it’s the numerous paltry ground outs. They don’t manufacture runs often, but when they have a chance to, they often leave the runners on base. They’ve got a cleanup hitter that can’t consistently hit the ball in the air. And their No. 5 hitter Yadier Molina and their No. 6 hitter Dexter Fowler have four hits on the year. Not four hits each. Four hits combined.

Now, to the Cards’ credit, they tried a different offensive approach Friday in the 5-3 loss to Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Padres. The home team entered the day with a staggering number of strikeouts. So against Padres starter Nick Margevicius, the Cards swung early. The Padres pitcher finished his five innings with just 54 pitches thrown — but only one hit and one walk allowed, the hit being DeJong’s homer.

“You have pretty much no history on a guy,” said Goldschmidt, when asked about the Cards’ aggressive approach. “But I think you know he’s probably going to come right at you. We were ready, but he was making quality strikes, which was tough. We swung early sometimes and he got some first- or second-pitch outs and then other times when maybe you’re a little more patient, then you’re behind in the count.

“Honestly, it’s a balancing act. You want to be ready to hit — which I think we are. We’re always ready to hit. It needs to be on a good hitter’s pitch. If they make a good pitcher’s pitch and we put it in play then most likely you’re going to be out. I thought we had a good game plan. He made really good pitches.”

The Cardinals, don’t you worry, have many more issues besides the hitting. Starters can’t seem to go deep into games — in fact, only once has a starter pitched six innings in a start (Michael Wacha). The bullpen is inconsistent, with anointed sure-hand Andrew Miller and Alex Reyes very errant (looks like John Brebbia is the new Alex Reyes in the bullpen, for the time being). And the aforementioned cleanup hitter, Marcell Ozuna, doesn’t seem to be his old Gold Glove self in left field, despite an offseason of Cardinals apparent accountability. Speaking of which, Carlos Martinez was supposed to be a starter that would gobble up innings — and now it’s unclear when he’ll return even as a reliever, let alone ever a starter again (his first bullpen session, since going on the injured list, will be April 13).

In Milwaukee, manager Mike Shildt pointed out that he at least tried to keep starting pitchers in longer. He wanted to show them he had confidence in them. Invest in April, have it pay off in August, that sort of thing. So, despite the lack of offense from the middle of the lineup, will Shildt keep those guys there, if only to show confidence in them?

“I appreciate the sense of urgency to every game and to how we play the game,” he said, “but I also appreciate the fact that if you’re seven games in and you’re too sideways about guys, I don’t think that’s a good message, especially when you have confidence in the players that we have. And I’m talking in general. It’s the beginning of the season, we need to demonstrate and put our group out there. We’ve got a lot of guys with different at-bats, and we’ve got a talented club and they’ll be just fine offensively.”

This is an era in which ballclubs are comfortable striking out more if that swinging approach, ultimately, leads to a few homers a game. In 2018, the Brewers and the Dodgers did this successfully, reaching the league championship series. And those two slugging clubs are at it again in 2019. As for the Cardinals, they’re homering a lot. They have 14 homers. The only St. Louis teams with more homers in the first seven games were in 2004 (17) and 2000 (20), per statistician Tom Orf. But the current Cardinals have yet to cook up the proper lineup and formula to turn this into winning baseball.

They spent spring dissecting swings with new hitting coach Jeff Albert. The Cards did — and still — talk confidently about their offense. Seven games, like the skipper said, is probably too early to get “sideways about guys.” But it’s not too early to start wondering — when will it be early enough?

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