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The Cardinals just might drive us all crazy

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As the Cardinals still search for some semblance of consistency, the chance for a fourth-straight NL Central title has become nearly unattainable.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

A week ago yesterday the Cardinals finished a three-game sweep of the Pirates by pummeling them 8-3. That brought them to a season-high seven games over .500, and a three-game lead on the Buccos for second place in the National League Central. They had a 2.5 game lead over the Dodgers, the first team on the outside looking in on the NL playoff picture, and if the season had ended that day they would have hosted the Mets in the Wild Card game. They were still nine games back of the seemingly invincible Cubs, but with a five-game homestand before the series with the Cubs kicks off tonight at Wrigley, a race for the division still seemed possible. A good bet? Certainly not, but not entirely inconceivable either.

They haven't won since, and now find themselves 1.5 games out of the last wild card spot and 12.5 games behind the Cubs. I'll let Rob Rains of STLsportspage.com tell the story in a string of tweets during yesterday's 5-4 loss to the Rangers:

Not only, as Rains mentioned, did the Cardinals complete their first winless homestand when facing at least two teams since being swept by the Cubs and Phillies in August 1983, it was the first time they've lost more than three games at home without at least one win since April 1986 when the Mets swept a four-game series. That's a remarkable run - if any other team in baseball can match that I'd be surprised.

Also, there might be a little overthinking here, making a bit too much of wins and losses. After another thrashing at the hands of the Cubs last night there's a chance the Pirates just aren't very good while the Rangers clearly are. But I'm going to err on the side of this being a very bad week. Aside from the stagnant hitting highlighted by Rains, there was bad managing, bad base running, bad fielding, and a bad, bad bullpen. But that brings us to another Rains tweet:

The starting pitching has actually been pretty good. Hardly the best stat in the world, but during this five-game losing streak the Cardinals got a quality start from every member of their rotation, including seven shutout innings from both Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez. In total, the starters pitched 34 innings and allowed only seven earned runs - and the team lost every single game..

All season long while the Cardinals hovered at or just above .500, the thinking - and I echoed this once or twice - was that as soon as the starting pitching positively regressed to go alongside with this offense, a playoff-caliber team would emerge. That's what seemed to coalesce after the Pittsburgh series. And while right now the team is riding their longest losing streak of the season, let's at least appreciate what we've seen from the starting pitching lately which is what a lot of us envisioned this staff resembling prior to the season.

Here's how the starting pitching for the Cardinals for each of the first three months of the season compared/s to league average (June stats as of this morning):

April

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

ERA-

FIP

FIP-

Cardinals

145.2

18.2%

8.1%

4.32

108

3.93

98

NL Average

2,002.1

20.9%

8.4%

4.18

102

4.00

98

May

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

ERA-

FIP

FIP-

Cardinals

169.1

17.9%

6.4%

4.36

109

3.92

97

NL Average

2,513.2

20.3%

7.5%

3.96

96

3.99

96

June

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

ERA-

FIP

FIP-

Cardinals

96.1

19.9%

5.7%

3.27

82

3.52

88

NL Average

1,494

22.1%

7.2%

4.12

101

4.10

101

Other than strikeout rate, the Cardinals starters have been significantly better than the rest of the NL in June, especially at run prevention which seems most important. They've also improved their April and May numbers across the board. Most of us don't need to see the stats to know this. Wainwright (1.80 ERA/20 IP), Michael Wacha (3.20 ERA/19.2 IP), and Martinez (1.23 ERA/29.1 IP) have been noticeably better their last few starts after all three had an ERA north of 4.62 for the month of May.

So the pitching improved and yet the Cardinals are still in the middle of their longest losing streak of the season. A few weeks ago when pondering with a co-worker when the starting pitching would come around, he joked it would surely coincide with the offense taking a dive. Of course, that's pretty much what's happened. Similar to above, here are the monthly splits for the offense compared with the NL average:

April

PA

K%

BB%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Cardinals

964

20.9%

9.2%

.206

.321

.275

.351

.481

124

NL Average

13,614

21.2%

9.1%

.157

.302

.253

.327

.410

97

May

PA

K%

BB%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Cardinals

1,113

19.6%

8.6%

.179

.300

.264

.331

.443

109

NL Average

16,138

21.1%

8.0%

.152

.294

.249

.315

.401

91

June

PA

K%

BB%

ISO

BABIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Cardinals

572

18.2%

8.2%

.153

.283

.251

.322

.405

97

NL Average

9,776

22.6%

7.9%

.159

.299

.250

.316

.409

94

After being arguably the best offense in the NL for the first two months, the Cardinals have been the very definition of average in June. Some of the fortuitous nature of the Cardinals' early offense has predictably corrected itself. Jeremy Hazelbaker has played his way to Memphis, as many expected would happen even when he had an OPS around 1.200. And since April 28, Aledmys Diaz has hit .238/.295/.360 with a 71 wRC+ in 184 plate appearances, resulting in his season average finally dipping below .300. Yadier Molina and Stephen Piscotty have also slumped lately to varying degrees.

The quick answer is this is what baseball looks like in a 162-game season. Still, there's enough talent on this roster for it not to be unreasonable to think the Cardinals should pitch like they have in June and hit like they did in May on a regular basis, thereby covering up whatever malfeasance, be it managerial or of the bullpen variety, that may be holding them back. But the reality is the Cardinals could wake up on Thursday morning 15.5 games out of first, which would be their largest deficit in the standings in nearly eight years.

And it's because of these frustrating inconsistencies that the Cardinals are now chasing a team with a nearly insurmountable lead. The wild card is always a fine Plan B, with the hope that the imperfections which held the team back over the long run will give way for a few weeks. So Plan B is not a problem per se - the problem is being faced with Plan B before the calendar even hits July.