St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny approaches the game from an old-school perspective that disdains excuses and believes that hard times build character. But he's not above filing away perceived slights -- from talk show callers, media analysts or whomever -- and hauling out the "us against them" card for motivational purposes.
The 2014 season has been more of a challenge than anticipated for the Cardinals, who were a fashionable spring training pick after winning the National League pennant with a largely homegrown roster and an emphasis on doing things the "Cardinal Way." But they needed time to build continuity after opening the season with new faces in six of the eight position player spots. Factor in a disappointing offense, some potentially devastating injuries and growing pains for Kolten Wong, Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and several other young players on the roster, and they've spent much of the season chasing the Milwaukee Brewers.
"It's been a grind," Matheny said. "We kind of acknowledged that early on. We said, 'This is where we are. This is the kind of team we're going to have to be until we get everything clicking.' And here we are with a week left in August thinking we still haven't clicked and hit our stride. The majority of our guys are having off-years offensively for whatever reason. That said, I'm real proud of how the guys fight. I think this is a character team right now.
"Yes, a lot of our guys had success in September and October, but that doesn't necessarily translate into success the next year. I think a lot of undue pressure was put on these guys, but that's a way to define yourself as a club. We're still growing. The young guys are learning, the veterans are leading, and in the midst of it we had a lot of people jump off our ship and write us off. That's something a good team thrives on. This team has been very resilient and locked arms. That's what they do in tough times."
As the Cardinals play the second game of a three-game series in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, they're trying to join the suddenly vulnerable Detroit Tigers as one of two big league teams to make the postseason for the fourth straight year. If they can get there -- either as NL Central champion or a wild-card entrant -- they'll become the first NL team to achieve the feat since the 2005 Atlanta Braves, who completed their history-making run of 14 straight division titles that season.
The Pittsburgh series began a run of 27 intradivision games in the team's final 33 outings. The Cardinals are 31-19 within the division and have a winning record against every NL Central team, so they can live with that scenario.
But in many ways, the Cardinals are still a team in search of an identity. Are they a sleeping giant ready to flip the switch, or a flawed, offensively challenged team that's going to have to do everything the hard way?
"Offensively, it's not a real good club, so they don't have the margin for error they've had in the past," an NL scout said. "They were incredible the way they hit [with men in scoring position] last year, and it was unsustainable. Now it's almost the other way for them."