My favorite series to this effect, as I've written multiple times, was back in June 2006, in Chicago for an interleague set. Cardinals pitchers started the series with an ERA of 3.99 and ended it, after a one-hitter, at 4.33. 40 hits and eight home runs in 16 innings, then one hit, one run, and one loss in the last eight. Mark Mulder—average fastball a charitable 85.6 miles per hour, that year, according to Fangraphs—was just about to vanish. Chris Duncan, not yet the second bat the Cardinals were leaning on, hit a garbage-time home run and the Cardinals fans in the crowd gave him a grateful standing ovation. The next day Timo Perez hit a garbage-time home run, and people weren't quite so happy about it.
The Cardinals didn't pull out of that tailspin immediately—it was a harbinger of bad things as much as it was the bad thing itself. They proceeded to give up 21 runs to the Tigers in three losses, then 13 in two more to the Indians before their first win in 10 days. Then they lost two out of three to the Royals. The Cardinals weren't right for two weeks after the White Sox series, and they were different by the time it finally happened. Mark Mulder pitched five bad innings the rest of the season; Chris Duncan took on a bigger role; Jeff Weaver crowded Sidney Ponson back out of a brief second go-around in the rotation.
The Cardinals' need to clean house isn't nearly so urgent now as it was then. The middle infield has hit terribly, and it's dragged down an offense that's gotten worse-than-expected offense from its two expensive hitters. Felipe Lopez probably won't be eased back into the lineup so much as dragged, and there's a non-zero chance that Brendan Ryan loses significant playing time to Lopez or Tyler Greene, but the other problems that have made the last two games so terrible are backed my multi-year contracts and, it should be said, multiple years of production that suggest things will get better.
If they don't—if fan hysteria has its right-twice-a-day moment and it turns out that two weeks in May are more predictive than the month of April and the three years of numbers that have been crunched by every projection system on the internet—it is time to panic.
It's not often I get a chance to praise Al Hrabosky for his subtlety and reluctance to pile on, but good on him for not taking the old-ballplayer bait when Dan asked if Brendan Ryan was taking his offensive frustration into the field. He might be—it certainly parses, and it's something to hold on to when the team is ready to make you mute the TV—but Al said, several times (as is his wont), that it's more complex than that. The Globe-Democrat has him expressing a more generalized frustration, which sounds about right to me:
"I'm not really having much fun right now," Ryan said. "Pride is probably getting in the way of that. I just don't feel like any part of the game is reflecting what I can bring to this team and to the table. There's probably a little bit of embarrassment there."
Less instructive, I thought, was Bernie Miklasz's tweet: "Brendan Ryan is sort of having some Rick Ankiel moments, eh? Just a bit jumpy out there at shortstop." I was thinking the same thing, but most cases of the yips—the ones that don't reach Ankiel level—are the observer's, not the player's. When the ball was hit his way after error number two I wasn't convinced that he'd throw it away every time; I was aware that I was no longer comfortable watching him throw. He'd given me the yips.
His ROOGY throwing motion has always looked less than reliable, but after a while that surface angst dissipated and his arm was like any other good arm. Now my yips are back.
More pressing are his problems with the bat. His glove is great, but he's not quite Adam Everett—he's got to hit a little, at least. More G-D, from La Russa:
"What he was doing in that cage was high quality and he took it into spring training," La Russa said. "When he came back (from a broken wrist during spring training), the way he was starting to take it into batting practice, he was working and doing some great things. Now, if he takes four at-bats, he may do what he worked on all winter once, or twice.
"I read where he's trying to incorporate that with the other thing. If he took Mark's approach and did it every at-bat, he wouldn't be hitting what he's hitting. He's panicked."
Coincidentally, I'm panicked. Skip Schumaker's over the Mendoza line, and has another year as a solid hitter to his credit, but given their respective defensive abilities their poor starts have been a wash. Felipe Lopez can spell one or the other on a regular basis, but at least one of them is going to have to put it back together.
Like the Chris Duncan garbage-timer four years ago it was good, cathartic, to see the middle of the Cardinals' order finally hit, even after it had stopped mattering to WPA. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday hitting well would do a lot to get the Brendan Ryan theater out of the headlines—he hasn't been hitting all year, and I think it's no coincidence that he's stayed basically Brendan Ryan-like until the center of the order stopped hitting, too.
Without Pujols and Holliday the pressure's built up on the marginal guys, Lohse and Ryan et al, and while either of them performing themselves would be one way of dealing with it, another will be more doubles and RBI from the guys who occupy the doubles-and-RBI part of the order.