Amid the dearth of offensive production, the Cardinals have had to find other ways to win. After ranking 14th in the National League in Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved rankings with a minus-39 in 2014, they lead the majors at plus-55 this season. Jhonny Peralta has been surprisingly efficient at shortstop, and the combination of Peter Bourjos and an improved Jon Jay has brought a significant upgrade to center field.
The Cardinals have also stolen 52 bases this season, surpassing their total of 45 for all of last year.
If the Cardinals are a bit of a mystery and a tease to their followers, they're also a challenge to assess for opposing scouts and personnel people. They entered a weekend series in Philadelphia having won seven of eight games, but dropped two of three even though they had the good fortune to miss the Phillies' best starter, Cole Hamels. Wainwright failed to hold a 4-1 lead in the series opener, and the Cardinals were shut down by Jerome Williams on Sunday as Justin Masterson, acquired in a deadline trade with Cleveland, continued to labor. In a 6-5, 12-inning victory Saturday, the Cardinals went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position.
Even though the Cardinals have a quiet, understated clubhouse -- and there was speculation the team might have gotten complacent before general manager John Mozeliak shook up the mix by trading Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to Boston for Lackey in late July -- the team's lack of style points is probably more attributable to a lack of offense than a lack of effort.
"Even the pitchers run balls out," an AL scout said. "They could easily just jog it out, like I see almost every other team do. That tells you something about their makeup. They're missing Molina big-time. But if they can get him back, with his spirit and his leadership, that's a huge difference. And if they get him and Wacha back at like 80-90 percent, they're looking pretty good."
St. Louis players who've been around a while can draw lessons from 2011, when they were 67-63 in late August and went 23-9 down the stretch to edge Atlanta for the wild-card spot on the final day of the regular season. Four weeks later, they were celebrating the franchise's 11th title, and third baseman David Freese was accepting the keys to a Corvette as the World Series MVP.
"We're gonna be fine," Wainwright said. "We're gonna be in the hunt in this thing right to end of the season."
Will the end come in September or October? In this grind of a season, the Cardinals can be thankful they still have an opportunity to provide the answer.