Lance Berkman is one of several key Cardinal bats failing to produce with runners in scoring position.
Failing to produce key hits with runners in scoring position is sending the St. Louis Cardinals in the wrong direction in the National League Central standings.
It's not like St. Louis doesn't score runs. The team's total of 119 runs in July was its worst of the year, but still ranked seventh in the National League. The Cardinals are now tied with the Texas Rangers for the most runs produced (518) in the majors and tout an MLB leading +102 run differential—which should put them in a tie for first place at 63-41 instead of seven games back at 55-48, according to Baseball Reference.
The discrepancy between production and record comes in the clutch. Here are the numbers to prove it and a list of ways to fix it.
Mike Matheny (22) has made too many unexpected trips to the mound to pull relievers like Marc Rzepczynski (34) late in games.
"Clutch" performances in baseball are mostly associated with timely hitting.
We'll get to that soon enough. Let's first examine the sport's most clutch situations: the late innings of close games.
The Cardinals are 15-29 in games decided by two runs or less. Their 2-6 mark in extra innings is even less inspiring.
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.
How to fix it
Rise to the occasion.
I won't go all Skip Bayless and accuse a lack of effort. But while the Cards may not be folding late in close games, they're not executing then either. St. Louis needs to step up when the game is on the line.
Carlos Beltran has cooled off from his torrid start to the season.
Now we can turn our attention to "clutch" hitting.
The Cardinals batted only .228 with runners in scoring position during the month of July, ranking 14th out of 16 National League teams. That includes a single inning against the Chicago Cubs in which they ripped eight hits with runners in scoring position. The month started in a 10-60 slump during those situations.
But that's just July. The Cardinals lead all MLB teams with 7.52 runners left on base per game over the entire 2012 season.
How to fix it
Stay confident and keep the same approach.
St. Louis knows how to drive runs in. Despite the recent rut, the team still ranks third in the National League with a .269 batting average with runners in scoring position. Those numbers only drop to fourth at a mark of .256 in those situations with two outs.
The Cardinals ranked 2nd among all MLB teams with 103 walks in July; just one shy of Atlanta's 104. They finished the month with the second fewest strikeouts in the National League with 163. Their .362 on-base percentage ranked first among all teams and was 13 points higher than the second-place Minnesota Twins.
All of this reflects the fact that St. Louis batters are taking good at-bats. The Redbirds will continue to do just fine in these key spots if they don't let any current frustration build.
Even during his recent tear, Matt Holliday is one of four key Cardinal bats failing to produce in the clutch.
The root of St. Louis' recent struggles with runners in scoring position lies at the core of its offense.
Don't blame the supporting cast. The team's best players are at fault here.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote another article looking at the individual performances of Cardinal hitters with runners in scoring position during July. The numbers aren't pretty.
Matt Holliday was 4-of-19 (.211). Carlos Beltran was 4-for-21 (.190). Yadier Molina was 2-for-14 (.143). Lance Berkman was 1-for-10 (.100). That shakes out to a combined 11-for-64 (.172) with runners in scoring position in July from the team's most important bats.
Miklasz also notes that backup catcher Tony Cruz produced almost as many RBI (7) as Beltran (8) and Holliday (9) in just 12 July at-bats with runners in scoring position. Berkman (2) and Molina (1) fell completely off pace.
How To Fix It
Beltran may need to move back to the No. 2 hole, where he has 11 homers, a .323 batting average, .402 on-base percentage and .699 slugging percentage in 93 at-bats this season. He has been one of the best No. 2 hitters of the modern era, producing a slash line of .296 /.381/.562.
Holliday's struggles with runners in scoring position are even more peculiar. Contrary to popular belief on the message boards, this is not a typical weakness for St. Louis' new three-hole hitter. The slump came during his hottest stretch of the season (.363/.449/.681 with 16 runs, seven homers and 22 RBI in July). Clearly he doesn't need to change much.
While Yadier Molina is no longer hitting at the ridiculous clip he produced in May, July wasn't exactly a down month for him overall either (.288/.337/.475)—although the counting numbers did slip significantly in every category but home runs.
Lance Berkman's struggles are the most understandable as he transitions back from injury.
Allen Craig and the St. Louis Cardinals need a power surge to fuel a comeback.
July featured a game in which five different Cardinal hitters blasted a home run in the first five innings of a game against the Chicago Cubs. The month ended with a three-homer game against the Colorado Rockies.
Somehow that same team managed to hit just one home run with runners in scoring position during that same month. That's right, just one.
How to fix it
Play more games in Denver.
Tuesday's series opener finished July on a mile-high note. Game 2 started August off just as well.
Matt Holliday belted three home runs, drove in nine runs and scored five times during those two contests. His long hot streak looks to finally be paying off in the clutch now that he is back in his old home.
Carlos Beltran looks to be out of his homer drought with four round trips over a seven-game span.
While the Cardinals clearly can't play all of their remaining games at Coors Field or against Rockie pitching, regaining their power stroke will help the club continue drive runners in and break games open. A few swats over the wall may even jolt the big guns back into a groove.
St. Louis has taken the right approach at the plate all season—during its torrid spring and slumping summer. That consistent plate discipline now seems to be correcting for a down month of July by producing handsomely in August.
More games against those lovable losers from the north side would help, too.