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St. Louis Cardinals: Things That Need to Happen to Take NL Central Lead

Dan KuklaCorrespondent IIIOctober 12, 2016

St. Louis Cardinals: Things That Need to Happen to Take NL Central Lead

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    The St. Louis Cardinals' standing among National League statistical leaders does not match their standing in the NL Central division race.

    They own the biggest run differential in Major League Baseball at +86. They rank first in the NL in runs (464), batting average (.276) and on base percentage (.343) and second slugging percentage (.434).

    Baseball Reference calculates that the Cardinals should garnish a 56-39 record, which would be good enough to lead the NL Central by one game.

    Instead, St. Louis still sits five games out of first place and two games out of a wild card spot at 50-45.

    Before their sweep of the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals owned a 27-34 record after May 11. Only the Cubs, Rockies and Astros performed worse in the NL over that span.

    Why do the numbers and records not match up? What does St. Louis need to do to pull off another late-season rally into the playoffs?

    Let's take a look.

1. Win Close Games

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    The biggest factor creating a disparity between the St. Louis Cardinals' numbers and overall record is the team's record in close games.

    St. Louis stands at 14-26 this season in games decided by two runs or less. The Pittsburgh Pirates are 30-19 in those games. The Cincinnati Reds are 27-21.

    The Redbirds' 2-6 mark in extra innings is even less inspiring. Cincinnati is 4-5 after nine innings, while Pittsburgh is 3-0.

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Berni Miklasz breaks down why the Cardinals keep coming up short in close contests. The main culprits he finds are failures in both late-inning hitting and late-inning pitching, as well as key bats missing opportunities to drive in runs.

    To pull off another late-season comeback run into the playoffs, the St. Louis Cardinals must start performing better late in close games.

2. Come Through in the Clutch

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    The St. Louis Cardinals' gaudy offensive numbers for the entire season are misleading.

    They have struggled mightily at the plate since May 11. After that mark and before the weekend's pair of blowout wins against the Chicago Cubs, the Cardinals ranked ninth in the National League in slugging, ninth in home runs per game, seventh in combined on-base and slugging percentage and eighth in average runs per game.

    Saturday's 12-run outburst broke a 10-for-60 stretch at the plate for Cardinal hitters with runners in scoring position. St. Louis had not produced more than three hits with runners in scoring position in any July game until then.

    The Cardinals ripped eight hits with runners in scoring position during Saturday's seventh inning. They had just as many on their six-game road trip after the All-Star break. St. Louis scored 19 runs this weekend against the Cubs, a number that was matched during the first seven games opening the season's second half.

    Many eyes are turned toward the team's starting rotation and bullpen as the trading deadline approaches, but the offense has been just as much of a liability.

3. Bolster the Bullpen

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    A shutdown bullpen played a major role in St. Louis' magical run to the 2011 World Series, but it has been the downfall of the team's 2012 season so far.

    The Cardinals own the fifth most blown saves (14) of any MLB team this year. Rookie flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal became the 14th relief pitcher used by St. Louis this season on Wednesday. Mike Matheny continues to struggle to find suitable solutions for the sixth and seventh innings. No arm he tries proves solid enough to bridge the gap between his starters and the end-game combo of Mitchell Boggs in the eighth and Jason Motte in the ninth.

    Here's a look at how Cardinal pitchers have performed in the late innings (via Baseball Reference)

    Inning ERA
    6th 5.07
    7th 4.60
    8th 3.64
    9th 3.44
    Extras 7.42

    By comparison, only the first inning (5.36 ERA) has given St. Louis trouble in the first five frames. Innings two, three and five all feature ERAs below 3.00.

    A popular solution is for the Cardinals is to trade for a starting pitcher to bump either Lance Lynn or Joe Kelly into the bullpen. But urgency for that route seems to have cooled with Jaime Garcia looking likely to return by mid-August.

    Brian Fuentes was added as much needed situational help against lefties. Rosenthal touched 100 mph while pitching two scoreless innings in the majors since his call up.

    One way or another, St. Louis needs to find new, reliable options for those pesky middle innings. John Mozeliak's trade of Colby Rasmus for a collection of arms last summer paid huge dividends last fall. Another trade may be necessary to send the Cardinals back to playing baseball in October.

4. Settle Second Base

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    Four different players have manned second base for St. Louis this season as Mike Matheny fishes for a source of consistent production.

    After the pitcher's spot, Cardinal second basemen have posted team lows in combined batting average (.258) and total bases (132) while ranking third to last in on base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.396).

    Skip Schumaker seems to be settling the debate for now. He is batting .409/.500/.591 in eight games over the last 14 days.

    Second base has been a weak spot in the St. Louis lineup for much of the season. The team needs someone to step up and take over full-time duty to help the offense return to its potential seen early in the year when Tyler Greene and the Redbirds began at a blistering pace.

5. Keep Jon Jay Hot

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    It's not coincidence that the St. Cardinals have gone as Jon Jay has gone this year.

    He brings elite defense to an important position in the field. On offense he often bats in the No. 2 hole, which sets the table for the big bats behind him.

    Jay batted 4-of-4 with a double, two RBI and a run in St. Louis' 7-0 rout of the Chicago Cubs on Sunday. He doubled in two runs and scored during the team's 12-run outburst in the seventh inning on Saturday.

    The recent surge snapped Jay out of a slump since returning from injury on June 22. The rest of the offense just happened to follow suit.

    St. Louis began the season on a tear, but started its slide on May 12. Jay's injury came on May 14 after he batted 1-for-12 in his last three games before hitting the DL.

    You can easily write it all off as coincidence, but Jay's role on the team is significant enough to connect the trends in a meaningful way.

    He is the oil that makes this team run on both offense and defense. Without his glove in center, the outfield defense becomes a liability. Without his bat near the top of the lineup, the offense loses a rally starter.

    Jay needs to stay hot to keep this machine rolling towards October.

6. Stay Healthy

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    Lance Berkman's recent return gave the St. Louis Cardinals a luxury they have not enjoyed much this season: a full, healthy lineup.

    All of the Redbird bats are back in business. It showed, as the Cardinals ripped their north-side rivals 23-1 in a three-game sweep.

    But the current health is not guaranteed to last long. Berkman, Jon Jay and Allen Craig are all still fragile after recovering from injuries earlier this season. David Freese has a checkered injury history of his own. Carlos Beltran's knee looks ready to go at a moment's notice.

    On the mound, Lance Lynn has never thrown more than 164 innings in a single season. He has already logged 110 frames this year. Keeping his arm fresh for the stretch run is vital to St. Louis' pitching staff.

    The Cardinals remain optimistic about Jaime Garcia's likely return in mid-August, but no one can know for sure how he will perform if he does indeed make it back.

    This currently stacked house of power cards could easily fold with a few key injuries.

    Mike Matheny has done well in following Tony La Russa's model of regularly resting his regulars. It may draw some fan grumbling when a depleted lineup loses to a division rival right before a scheduled off day. But the dog days of August are fast approaching, so squeezing in some down time for many of these brittle stars is important.

    Health comes with luck as a large factor, but St. Louis needs to do everything it can control to avoid serious injuries.

7. Win Division Games

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    St. Louis must win its games against division opponents, especially games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

    This seems rather obvious, but it remains crucial to the Cardinals' comeback chances.

    Even after a sweep of the Chicago Cubs, the Redbirds are still only 24-20 against NL Central teams. The Reds and Pirates are each eight games over .500 in division contests. That four-game difference just happens to be one less then the gap in the standings.

    Falling in a three-game sweep in Cincinnati to start the season's second half was crushing. It dropped the Cardinals to 4-5 against the Reds this year. They own a 5-4 against the Pirates.

    It would help, of course, if St. Louis played against the Cubs every weekend.

    But the team's performance against the division's weakest opponents is actually concerning. St. Louis trailed the season series with Chicago 3-4 before the weekend sweep. The Cardinals are only 3-3 against the Houston Astros and 5-4 against the Milwaukee Brewers.

    Beating up on the basement dwellers is just as important as winning against the leaders.

    Nine games remain against each team ahead of St. Louis in the division standings. The season ends with a three-game home series against Cincinnati. There is a lot of baseball to play in between these head-to-head meetings, but the division title and wild card will likely be decided in games against each other.

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