Cards in mix despite grinding season

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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."

Waiting for Yadier

Some of the enthusiasm surrounding the team revolves around the pending returns of catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Michael Wacha, both of whom will take another step in their injury rehabs this week when they join St. Louis' Double-A farm club in Springfield, Mo. Wacha, who has been out since June with a stress reaction in his right shoulder, will throw a live bullpen session Wednesday as the next step toward a September return. It remains to be seen whether Wacha can build the necessary stamina to have an impact in the rotation if St. Louis advances to the playoffs. But if Wacha can find a way to get it together in a hurry, a postseason rotation of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Wacha could be a handful.

Molina, out since July 10 with a torn ligament in his right thumb, has begun swinging the bat and catching bullpen sessions and also expects to return next month. The Cardinals were 50-42, two games behind Milwaukee in the Central, when Molina went down for surgery just before the All-Star break. They've gone 21-17 in his absence and now trail the Brewers by 1½ games, so his injury wasn't quite the death blow it was made out to be.

But the peripheral numbers substantiate how much better a team the Cardinals are with Molina orchestrating things from behind the plate. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cardinals have a 3.26 ERA in 703 innings with Molina at catcher this season and a 4.19 mark in 457 innings with Tony Cruz, A.J. Pierzynski and George Kottaras behind the plate.

Molina's calming influence, pitch-calling, game-planning and pitch-framing skills are well-documented. And his impact on opposing running games is always apparent. Molina threw out 16 of 34 runners attempting to steal before his injury. St. Louis' other catchers are a combined 5-for-33.

If Matheny goes to great lengths to stifle his inner giddiness over the potential return of two impact players in September, it's because he doesn't want to give his team a crutch or set up the Cardinals for a letdown in the event Molina and/or Wacha experience setbacks.

"I don't want to diminish it, but our perspective is different from everybody else in the baseball world," Matheny said. "Everybody labeled Yadi early on as a player we couldn't do without, and that's a dangerous place to go. Injuries happen in this game, and if you set yourself up to think, 'If we lose this particular player, we've lost all hope and chances,' that's a bad spot to be."

Finding their way

With or without Molina, the Cardinals still have to figure out a way to put more runs on the board. Although they're having a respectable offensive August (they're fourth in the NL with 100 runs scored this month), they're still tied for 13th in the league with 493 runs. Much of the dropoff can be traced to a marked decline in production with runners in scoring position; after leading the majors with a .330 average in that category in 2013, they're 24th among the 30 big-league clubs at .243 this season. They're also 29th in the majors with 84 home runs, ahead of only the power-impaired Kansas City Royals, and have a 71-59 record despite a run differential of minus-7.

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.

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