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St. Louis Cardinals struggled to tread water in April

ST. LOUIS -- It may have been a harmless slip of the tongue or it may have been a valuable insight into one of the issues that has plagued the St. Louis Cardinals through a surprisingly mediocre first month of this baseball season.

Pitcher Jaime Garcia was asked whether episodes of sloppy defense have made it harder to pitch for the Cardinals this season. St. Louis pitching, the best in the majors last year, was middle-of-the-pack in April. Garcia called errors “part of the game,” and compared such mistakes to a pitcher walking a batter, more a matter of execution than intent.

“I know our guys are trying too hard,” Garcia said. “They’re working on it, and we’re going to be good.”

Perhaps they are trying too hard, an explanation that meshes with the fact that young players are making the majority of the Cardinals’ errors. Rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker made a couple Saturday in the Cardinals’ 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals, one of which led directly to a run. Another rookie, Aledmys Diaz, leads the team with five errors, and Kolten Wong has four. Wong also dropped the ball to blow a fairly routine double play Saturday, not the first time that has happened this year.

The Cardinals have made 24 errors, most in the majors. They also have a 3.94 collective ERA, a bit north of the Nationals’ tidy little 2.36 and good for 15th best in the major leagues. Much of the damage has been done against Cardinals starters, shockingly. Garcia has been among the most reliable of those starters, but he put the Cardinals in a 4-0 hole before they even got a chance to bat Saturday.

The mediocre pitching and defensive mistakes are intertwined. A throw that Matt Adams should have cut off led to a Hazelbaker error in that mess of a first inning that spiraled out of control when Garcia left a changeup in the middle of the zone for Jayson Werth, who yanked it into the left-field stands.

If there is a glimmer of hope in all of this, it’s that two of the Cardinals’ struggling starters have shown some signs of a turnaround. Adam Wainwright had his best stuff of the season three days ago, and Mike Leake settled in for a while after a rocky inning Friday.

“I think they’ve all shown signs of going in the right direction, though the numbers maybe are skewed on a couple,” manager Mike Matheny said. “But I believe also we’re better than what we’ve shown.”

If the Cardinals don’t start pitching with a little more edge and catching and throwing with a little more care, things could go sideways quicker than they normally would so soon in a baseball season. At this point last year, the Cardinals were 18-6 and had a 4 1/2-game lead in the division.

Nowadays, the only thing that can cool off the first-place Chicago Cubs, it seems, is the weather. They were postponed Saturday, but now lead the Cardinals by six games. That’s a pretty good chunk of cushion after one month. The Pittsburgh Pirates were going for their sixth straight win Saturday night. I asked Matheny if those clubs’ trajectories have given him any more sense of urgency heading into May.

“None. None, whatsoever,” Matheny said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

True, but it’s easier to fall out of a race early than to put one away early. I asked a similar question of Cardinals first baseman Brandon Moss, and he seemed a little peeved.

“I mean, we’re playing the Nationals right now. We’re not playing the Cubs, so I don’t even know how they played. I mean, I know they’ve gotten off to a good start, they’ve got a good team, but we’re the Cardinals and we’re playing the Nationals,” Moss said. “I haven’t even looked at a scoreboard today.”

The scoreboard that mattered showed the Cardinals losing by a lot, despite outhitting an opponent, and that they made three more errors. It also showed that they were shut down again by a quality pitcher, with Joe Ross doing what Rubby De La Rosa had done two days earlier -- dominating. The Cardinals are 1-7 against teams with winning records.

Not all of April was a drag. Diaz picked up his 30th hit in the ninth inning. The only other rookie to come up with that many hits in April was named Albert Pujols. For most of the rest of the team, May can’t come soon enough.