Cardinals enter All-Star break confused by lackluster first half

MILWAUKEE -- The St. Louis Cardinals headed off to various points across the country for the All-Star break, the only vacation amid the grind of a major league season. Manager Mike Matheny planned on spending some time at his Missouri lake house. A big group of young players was headed for a different lake destination, this one in Tennessee. Reliever Seung Hwan Oh was off to New York City accompanied, as usual, by his interpreter, Eugene Koo.

Rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz and injured infielder Matt Carpenter are the Cardinals’ representatives at Tuesday’s All-Star game in San Diego.

None of the Cardinals will embark on their break with any real concept of what their team’s identity is, because they haven’t yet forged one. After Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals still are in search of themselves.

They go into the All-Star break entirely unsatisfied with their first half. It wasn’t bad, exactly. It was just kind of there. Their longest winning streak, five games, was followed immediately by their longest losing streak, five games. That stretch in early June tells you all you need to know about 88 games that were consistently inconsistent, with little rhyme or reason to the wins and losses, which came in distressingly similar quantities.

The mediocrity has been baffling, especially inside the clubhouse, which might, in one regard, be the good news. They seem to honestly think they’re better than they’ve shown.

“We felt like we could get hot and instead we’d get cold, then hot, then cold,” Stephen Piscotty said. “I think it’s absolutely still in there. It’s just a matter of going out and playing and getting a few more breaks to go our way.”

The Cardinals’ run differential of plus-89 remains third best in the National League. Their record at the break, 46-42, is seventh best in the league. You could call it bad luck or you could call it an inability to execute in close games, but it has created a sometimes-maddening pattern, or lack of pattern, for the team and its fans.

“I think universally our team would say there’s not a satisfaction with where we are,” Matheny said. “We’re fortunate to be where we are. As I look up there, it says we’re seven games behind. With how we’ve played, that’s pretty impressive because we haven’t played well. We saw very short periods where we put it all together and it’s going to happen. There’s too much talent and too much experience and too many winning players on this club not to put it together.”

Isolating the problem is the hardest part, because it has tended to migrate through various parts of the team. Overall, the hitting has been powerful and balanced, but not consistent. The Cardinals rank third in the NL in OPS. Overall, the starting pitching has been disappointing, but improving. General manager John Mozeliak recently referred to it as “fine.” Cardinals starters rank sixth in the NL with a 4.01 ERA. Overall, the bullpen has been good mostly and bad sporadically. The relievers are fourth in the NL with a 3.66 ERA and third in opponents’ batting average (.220).

How does a team that is well above average in all three facets find itself in third place in its division at the break? The Cardinals can’t blame injuries, because they were generally sound until the final week of the first half.

“It was just a little inconsistent,” Piscotty said. “We never did get on that run that I think we were all hoping to get on, but there’s more time for that.”

There are some tangible ways to explain why they are wasting good production. According to Fangraphs, the Cardinals have been the third-worst fielding team in the majors after the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins. The same site ranks them the second-worst baserunning team after the Seattle Mariners.

Some of those flaws were evident early in Sunday’s game. Tommy Pham took a bad route on a line drive by Brewers pitcher Junior Guerra, playing it into a double. Mike Leake couldn’t get an out at first on Jonathan Villar’s attempt at a sacrifice bunt.

For now, the Cardinals are hoping to get healthy and are hopeful good health will lead to something.

Their best left-handed reliever, Kevin Siegrist, has recovered from mononucleosis and could return from the disabled list as soon as Friday. Brandon Moss’ sprained left ankle is improving and he should be activated within a couple of weeks. There is less certainty about Carpenter, because he has yet to test his strained right oblique muscle. Injuries to reliever Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Holliday were viewed as minor. After the break, they open with a 10-game homestand. It’s hard to tell if that’s good news or bad news. The Cardinals are seven games below .500 at home.

Matheny doesn’t want his team to be hunkered down waiting for some of its most productive players to heal before the Cardinals expect to go on the run they keep talking about. He thinks they’re capable of doing it with the healthy bodies on hand.

“Whatever piece you put in there needs to have that same result,” Matheny said.

Funny, because if there’s one thing the Cardinals are hoping for out of the second half, it’s different results.