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Benjamin Hochman is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Cardinals close out Angels series

St. Louis Cardinals Third baseman Matt Carpenter (13) reacts after striking out during the eighth inning of a game on Sunday, June 23, 2019 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

This past weekend, with the Angels in town, St. Louis got a glimpse of what life could've been like this year with … a thriving leadoff hitter.

Yes, Albert Pujols' teammate Tommy La Stella is hitting .295 with an OPS of .848, higher than every Cardinals batter. L.A.'s La Stella has been a surprise jolt for the Angels, the way Matt Carpenter had previously perpetually jolted the Cards' lineup. But this year, Carpenter has a .218 average and a .329 on-base percentage.

What's worse is, there aren't any viable candidates to fill his spot.

The 2019 Cardinals are still in the mix, even with the devastating injury to closer Jordan Hicks. But from leadoff down to the eighth spot, with just a couple of exceptions, the lineup has been inconsistent and unreliable. Some of these games, the Cardinals' hit totals look like the opponents' run totals — or accidental homages to the retired numbers of Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial or even Pujols' No. 5, as seen in Saturday's game against his Angels.

If Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt return to their career norms, a lot of the frustration would fade. For a while here, we've been relying on the lesson from 2018 — both guys started off slow, yet both guys finished with MVP votes. But the “start” of the 2019 season is over — Game No. 78 is Tuesday, when the Cardinals (40-37) host Oakland (41-38).

Incidentally, if there was ever a time to find their swings, it's in the next four series, since Oakland is actually the best of the teams St. Louis will face.

Still, unlocking the offense might take some jimmying. Give Yairo Munoz a chance, even if it's in centerfield. This column space has always been a proponent of Harrison Bader, and his glove remains a game-changer. But in the short-term, Bader should be a bench weapon with speed and late-game defense. He has one hit in his past 29 at-bats. Even if you zoom out, he's hitting .135 in his past 25 games, with a .261 OBP.

New hitting coach Jeff Albert was supposed to enrich hitters such as Bader, Kolten Wong, Dexter Fowler, and the frighteningly slumping Paul DeJong (He's played in 76 games — in his first 38 games, DeJong's slash line was .329/.410/.582, and in his second 38 games, it was .197/.297/.359).

In a strikeout world, Albert was advertised as an “advocate for contact,” though the Cards' strikeout rate of 22.1 percent is similar to last year's 22.3. Per FanGraphs, the Cards' percentage of contact within the strike zone has dropped a percentage point, though there are innumerable metrics to dissect in regards to swings and hitting.

Asked to describe Albert's impact on the team, manager Mike Shildt said, “Jeff's done a great job. … The players ultimately buy into the philosophies, and it's a continual education, continual growth. They've been clear about what they would like to have happen, and the methodology and identity, which I think is important. There's always going to be a learning curve with people that are (already) here, you know? So it's about meeting people where they are, and that's what good coaches, instructors, managers do.”

It's a process. And that's not a cop-out. In baseball, it's a process to implement things, and then it's a process in and of itself to execute those things.

The Cards hitters should be better. But Shildt, at least, is pleased with the process many of his players take. Maybe that's optimism that overall improvement will come? The reality is, seldom will a team have all eight hitters clicking at the same time. Even great teams will have a couple underachievers.

So question is — what is Shildt's barometer for an offense going well?

“There's a lot of factors to it,” he said. “First of all, it's, it's harder and harder to do. I'll never make excuses for a group, but if you look at things just in reality, offense is more challenging now than it has ever been in the history of our game. For all the reasons we can talk about at another time. But to answer your question, it really has to be more about process, I think offensively, than any other thing. Because just think about all the sports, it's failure oriented. And, and who likes to deal with failure, you know? Especially competitors who are are used to having success.”

The manager pointed out the how in football, an average passer completion percentage is higher than even a great baseball batting average. Same with, say, a basketball free-throw percentage. It's just the nature of the sport. And even in basketball, a player takes so many shots during the course of a game, if he or she misses a few, it's not a big deal. In baseball, if you will, you only get four or five “shots” per game.

“To have that kind of failure and in front of 45,000 people and not do it well? It's a tough thing that to figure out,” Shildt said. “Long way of getting to that — it's very process driven. You have to be very mentally tough and dedicated to it.

“So what I think it looks like is — the quality of the at-bat. I think it looks like you individually, having a good plan of what you're going to see, of what you want to do against it. Have the right approach. And if you can do that consistently, you've given yourself the best chance. I can defend when we're doing that. It's harder to defend if we're not. And you know, if I feel like if we're not individually or collectively doing that, then we talk about it. We say, 'What what was that about? How are you approaching it?' But if guys are preparing right … and competing in the right manner — there's not a whole lot more to ask.”

But until the Cardinals' hitting improves, we'll keep asking how it can — or if the process should be tinkered.

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