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Hochman: The Cardinals' weak week could be a harbinger if play doesn't improve

Hochman: The Cardinals' weak week could be a harbinger if play doesn't improve

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Reds 5, Cardinals 2

St. Louis Cardinals Paul Goldschmidt flies out to end the eighth inning against the Cincinnati Reds as the Cardinals lost 5-2 on Saturday, June 5, 2021 at Busch Stadium. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

The worst part about the worst week ever is it isn’t even over yet.

The Cardinals (and their fans) have one more day to endure.

Yes, yes, some people consider Sunday as a week’s first day. But if that’s a case, then the worst week ever was even worse, considering the Cardinals lost last Sunday, too.

“Collectively,” Nolan Arenado said, “we're all kind of a little bit in a rut.”

The Cards have lost six of their past seven games — and lost two more starting pitchers to the injured list in the process. Saturday’s ballgame was the latest blah game — 5-2, Cincinnati — and Yadier Molina left midway with a bone contusion in his knee.

Things are frustrating right now, but they don’t seem hopeless, if only because the Cardinals played winning ball overall in May. But there are trends — both short-term and long-term — that sure are disconcerting. The offense is uneven and underachieving. The relievers walk too many batters; the starters strike out too few. The rotation is decimated.

And thus, this week’s unraveling.

“I believe in this group,” said the perennial All-Star Arenado, whose club has lost four straight games for the first time in 2021. “I know everyone in there believes in each other and it's just a rough patch right now. I believe that greater times are ahead, but we definitely have got to grind this out. We’ve got to be better. And we will.”

That includes Arenado himself, who used his baseball savvy Saturday to punch his way out of a slump. He’d entered the day with two hits in his previous 26 at-bats. But three times he placed a ball into the outfield with a half-swing, all to the opposite field.

But Paul Goldschmidt continues to struggle (a sentence I’m not sure was ever written in The Arizona Republic). Some of his swings have looked a little weird lately. His walk rate is in the 8% range, a career-low — last season it was 16% and for his career, it’s 13.5%.

Yes, you can find a nugget of Goldschmidt optimism in his exit velocity. He entered the homestand with the eighth-highest exit velocity in all of baseball (only seven dudes hit harder balls on average). But … of the top-20 in exit velocity, Goldschmidt was one of just four guys with an OPS under .800. So you’d think that if he keeps hitting the ball hard, he’ll have an OPS like his contemporaries. But for now, with his .712 OPS, he’s an outlier with his liners for outs. That’s when he makes contact — he struck out twice in Saturday’s loss.

Now, the moment that summarized Saturday — and captured the Cardinals’ weak week — was Johan Oviedo’s at-bat in the fourth inning.

So, Johan was on. He was pitching effectively and efficiently.

And in the fourth inning, manager Mike Shildt pinch-hit for him.

And, frankly, it was the right move.

In a tie game with two outs, the Cards had the bases loaded. Knowing his slumping offense might not get another chance like this one, Shildt sent up John Nogowski, who had been slugging in Memphis. The pinch-hitter flew out. Sure enough, the Cards didn’t score again all day.

Saturday’s game was maddening in many ways. The Cards actually scored first (and were 22-7 when scoring first), but lost. A reliever, Ryan Helsley, walked a batter … and then allowed a homer. Later, another reliever (Genesis Cabrera) walked a batter that went on to score — that seventh-inning walk was the Cardinals’ league-worst 94th free pass in the seventh inning or later. And for the third-straight game against the Reds (all St. Louis losses), the Cards had the tying run at the plate in the ninth. This isn’t apples-to-apples, but that sounds a lot like Blues optimists, at the start of the playoffs, who pointed out that the Blues lost a number of really, really close games to Colorado that season (the Avalanche swept the Blues in the postseason).

Now, maybe we’re worrying more up in the press box than Shildt is down in the dugout. The skipper pointed out a lot of variables about his club. The injuries. The long stretch of games without a day off. The continuous hustle on the field.

“We went 5-5 on a 10-game West Coast road trip, so I don’t want to make this thing bigger than it is,” he said. “The effort level is there. So that part's good. Baserunning has been solid. Defense has been good. It’s just one of those things where we haven’t been able to get a lead (often), haven’t been able to bring it home. We’ve had some close games and have just been on the other side of it. I can’t really say more than that. It happens.”

But with starters Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and now Kwang Hyun Kim all on the injured list — and an unstable bullpen to begin with — this next week looks as perilous as this past one. Especially considering they’ll face reigning American League Cy Young winner Shane Bieber of Cleveland (31-25) on Tuesday. And after two against Cleveland in St. Louis, the Cardinals head to Chicago for three games against the first-place Cubs.

This division is tight. Might very well be throughout the summer. But the Cardinals will have to play better baseball to remain in that mix. Even with the injuries and the slumps, they’ll have to hope that in the weeks ahead, the worst is behind them.

Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

bhochman@post-dispatch.com

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