Hard to say who lost this play at the plate. I'll go with everyone.
It seems like there's been a lot written pushing back against the idea that the Cardinals are inconsistent or fraudulent in their performance. Up until a nasty 4 game stretch through Cincinnati and Washington, the Cardinals had been underperforming most win estimator's predictions based on their aggregate stats thus far.
There's a need to rebut this from another vantage point. The Cardinals are 9th in MLB in wins and currently in line to secure the second wild card spot for the playoffs. A year after winning the World Series in remarkably dramatic fashion, should we be expecting more?
Entering the offseason, the Cardinals watched the best player of the last decade leave via free agency. Albert Pujols had been the core of the Cardinals offense and for years the team had been structured around the expectation that he would do great things. At the same time, Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa decided to retire. (It's hard for me to make a compelling case that LaRussa's retirement is important but it seems like the same people complaining about inconsistent offense are the ones who lauded LaRussa as a vital component of the team. I don't adhere to that so take this departure as you will.)
In spring training, the Cardinals lost their titular ace of the staff, Chris Carpenter, to an injury. At age 37, Carpenter's laundry list of injuries was unlikely to get shorter or less concerning and, fortunately, the team had Lance Lynn available to step in. It was a dubious expectation to think that Lynn could fully replace Carpenter but he did, providing an impressive mid-3s FIP during his time in the rotation.
Adam Wainwright was returning to the rotation after missing a year from Tommy John surgery. Jaime Garcia was unable to avoid the disabled list mid-season while the Cardinals top pitching prospect -- Shelby Miller -- was in the midst of his own funk in AAA. Jake Westbrook was coming off one of the worst seasons of his career in 2011.
This was a team that began the year fielding Lance Berkman at fist, Rafael Furcal at shortstop and Carlos Beltran in right field. All three of them are excellent players when healthy. All three of them have had a significant number of injuries during their careers. Berkman would damage his knee this season, Furcal his elbow and Beltran would nurse various leg injuries over the course of the year. None of it unexpected, none of it unplanned for but all of it creating a team that was working with plan B as often as it was plan A.
Beyond those three, even the younger elements of the squad have proven susceptible to injuries: Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Jon Jay. The 2012 Cardinals have had to find a way to play with injuries as often as they've played without them.
Every team, every year could write a "woe is me" recap of their injuries. Most of those teams aren't in line for the playoffs but they all could parse their season's disabled list in a way that justifies their record. If you accept the premise that the Cardinals have been inconsistent this year (I don't but for the sake of argument), is it reasonable to have expected anything more? A team with key players who were aging and injury prone. A team who lost one of their best pitchers and had another returning after being out the entirety of 2011. If the premise is true, the conclusions that have been drawn -- and yes, I'm looking at Post Dispatch writers, in part -- are surprisingly indignant considering the circumstances.
The Cardinals have been successful for a long time. That success has spoiled us. If the Pittsburgh Pirates finish the season above .500 but miss the playoffs, will their offense be pilloried as inconsistent? Are fans taking out ads to get their owner to sell the team? If the Cardinals are expected to have unqualified success on a yearly basis, then they will fail to meet those expectations.
2012, however, looks like a qualified success.
* * *
When writing the above, I was side tracked a few times by exceptional performances this year. Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly both stepped into the rotation and didn't miss a beat. Allen Craig has shown what a full(er) season of his plate appearances can look like. David Freese has continued to defy the BABIP gods and hit for an exceptional rate. Matt Carpenter has proven to be a different kind of player than he was in the minors with power output beyond any previous season.
It's hard to imagine what the 2012 season would be like, however, without Yadier Molina. It used to be difficult to parse Molina's value to the team since so much of it was wrapped up in his position and defense. Those things have proven more difficult to measure with accuracy than offense. Molina has effectively solved that problem by simply becoming a tremendous offensive player. Consider that, among qualified players, Yadier Molina has the 17th highest wOBA in all of baseball. This is the same player that couldn't quite crack .300 wOBA two seasons ago.
If there's a poster child for unexpected success in 2012, and the Cardinals have a lot of candidates, Yadier Molina has to be the one. He's still out-hitting his best friend and former teammate, Albert Pujols. Did you ever think that would happen?