For the Cardinals, July 30 looms ... and not just because it’s the trade deadline.
July 30 is the first day of a mouthwatering stretch of games. It’s as if Lion’s Choice made the schedule. From July 30 to August 29, the Cardinals have 27 games, and only three are against a team currently over .500.
Oh, and there’s a lot of Pittsburgh in there. Ten games, in fact.
The Cardinals (44-46, eight games out of first in the National League Central Division at the All-Star break) must figure out a way to play winning baseball from after the break until July 30.
Make a trade for a starting pitcher who doesn’t cost a top-five prospect. Take a risk, get an arm. Fill the void in the rotation. Don’t question whether, by month’s end, you’re buyers or sellers. Go with buyer. Make a run at it. Because even if you just chip away a couple games in the standings by July 30, you’ve got an amazing opportunity to make up a boatload of games with the easy schedule starting then.
Again, 24 of 27 games against teams now under .500.
The Cardinals host the Twins, Braves and Royals; then go to Pittsburgh and Kansas City; back home for the Brewers, Pirates and Tigers; then to Pittsburgh for four.
Want more optimism? As long as that 27-game stretch puts the Cards within striking distance of first place, they are in a great spot. Why? Because they have 10 September games against Milwaukee. Ten games!
Worried the Reds will overtake the Brewers? Well, the Cards have six games against Cincy (Aug. 30-Sept. 1 and Sept. 10-12).
Look, I’ve been very pessimistic about the way this team has performed. The hitting has been atrocious. Here’s where the Cardinals rank in OPS at five of the eight positions: First base (10th out of 15 teams in the National League), catcher (10th in NL), shortstop (13th in NL), second base (13th) and right field (15th).
Meanwhile, pitching coach Mike Maddux has overseen a staff that has walked 394 batters, the most in baseball. And before you start talking about all the injuries to starters, let’s point out that Maddux’s bullpen has a 13.6% walk rate — which if it finishes there will stand as the second-worst in all of baseball in the past 50 years.
But, even with all of this, July 30 provides hope.
The Cards have to get to July 30 first.
On the phone Sunday, I mentioned the July 30-August 29 stretch to John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations.
“We had all this, ‘Oh, we’re playing Pittsburgh and Detroit (in June),’ and we didn’t do well,” he said. “So I’m looking at the schedule as simply like — we play Friday, and it would be a good time to start winning. Then the next day. Because overall, I feel like we’re chasing kind of our shadow in a way. We’re not just doing what we’re supposed to be doing. And rather than trying to take this longer-view look at where we are, we just need to see where we are and start playing good baseball. And the best way to do that is to start doing it on Day One” after the break.
That’s Friday back at Busch Stadium against the Giants, perhaps the top story of the NL in the first half. But just last week, the Cards took two of three in San Francisco.
As for his club’s offense, Mozeliak said: “I’m not trying to make an excuse, but when you look at our everyday club, it’s probably only played together a third of the time. And what I mean by that is, really, the outfield. In camp, we were hoping that it would be Dylan Carlson in right, Harrison Bader in center and Tyler O’Neill in left. And obviously, Bader was slowed by the forearm. And then when he came back, we started playing really good baseball. And, unfortunately, then he lost time with the rib (injury).
“And then, subsequently, Tyler missed time with a couple different injuries. And then losing (shortstop Paul) DeJong for a significant amount of time, too, I think has affected his performance, as well. So not making excuses, but I’m just pointing out that with them hopefully being able to play every day and regularly when we begin the second half, I do have hope that you’ll see a better everyday club.”
Manager Mike Shildt has yet to find a reliable leadoff hitter, and it’s affecting the flow of the offense during the course of the games. Cardinals leadoff hitters have a .314 on-base percentage, second lowest in the NL to Philadelphia. Current leadoff man Dylan Carlson has a .659 OPS as the leadoff hitter — and again, it’s not simply about being the first batter of the game. It’s more about being the batter before Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado every time through the order.
I like the outside-the-box idea of batting O’Neill first. And Bader could make a case with his recent play.
Regardless, the Cardinals must be proactive with decisions in the next 12 games — because these dozen will determine the trajectory of 2021.
Starting July 30, the Cards will face beatable teams and, soon after, get reinforcements from some currently injured starting pitchers. Hopefully the August games won’t be meaningless for a seller looking south toward the cellar.