Cardinals have yet to click on all cylinders
ST. PETERSBURG -- For two glorious weekend days in Toronto, the Cardinals' juggernaut which their manager and fans have been searching for showed up.
Then, they came to Florida and, although they split two games with the slumping Rays, once again sputtered.
This is almost like the old TV show. Will the real Cards please stand up?
During an American League interlude to their rugged National League schedule, the Cardinals shut out the AL East-leading Blue Jays on Saturday and Sunday by identical 5-0 scores.
The weekend should have been a defining moment for the 2013 NL pennant winners. The Blue Jays pitch well and have an offense that hits the ball out of sight.
Power, timely hitting and strong pitching were ingredients of the two shutouts.
But against the disappointing, skidding Rays, the Cards managed just two singles and a Matt Holliday homer on Tuesday night in a less-than-impressive 1-0 win.
To say their offense has been anemic is an understatement.
The next night, the Rays, with the worst record in the AL, ended a team-record 31 scoreless innings streak during a 6-3 win. It was just the Rays' second victory in their past 16 games. They'd gone 21 hitless at-bats with runners in scoring position before Matt Joyce's single drove home a fourth-inning run.
Needless to say, St. Louis' clubhouse was gloomy and quiet.
The Cardinals jetted back to St. Louis late Wednesday night with a 4-3 record from the road trip. They trail the NL Central-leading Brewers by five games.
Manager Mike Matheny, who adroitly guided the Cards to the postseason in each of his first two seasons after taking over for Hall of Fame skipper Tony La Russa, remains puzzled.
Several weeks ago, Matheny speculated it might take some type of launching point for the Cardinals to show their potential for 2014. Now, he's not so sure.
"I think we need to get our eyes off that," he said after the loss to Tampa Bay. "Maybe even defining our team is going to be one of those things we look back at instead of thinking, 'Now we've figured it out.' "
Waiting for a key hit or a key victory obviously isn't the answer to trigger this team. If that were the case, the two shutouts in Toronto would have done it.
With a third of the season behind, the Cards are still searching for their identity.
"We saw some good days in Toronto where we saw almost every aspect we've been looking for," Matheny said. "Those were a couple of days of well-rounded baseball. Those are good days to have. We must see how many we can stack in a row.
"It's just about fighting now. We're just going to have to be the grinding team. We're just going to have to grind."
After Thursday's day off, the Nationals, who've moved into first place in the NL East, arrive at Busch Stadium. The Nats have been on a tear lately, as they've moved to the top of their division.
If the Cardinals are to reach their potential, their hitting must improve. They've left 74 runners on base this month.
Add to that concern over the health of their ace, Adam Wainwright (9-3, 2.15 ERA), who's suffering from what has been described as a "tennis elbow."
Holliday, a career .309 hitter with a .525 slugging average, is batting .265 this season and his slugging percentage is down to .378. He has just four homers and 30 RBIs.
"It's been frustrating for me from the standpoint that I haven't been able to drive as many balls as I would like," Holliday told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I've been rattling my brain for hours trying to figure out exactly what it is.
"I'm just trying to figure out where the problem is and what's causing it and remedy it. I have done a good job of getting on base. The slugging percentage is not something I'm happy with. It's pretty poor."
With just 36 homers in 66 games, the Cards rank last among the 15 NL teams.
"These guys are fighting through a tough spell," said Matheny. "We as a club, even though we're putting up a couple of wins here and there, it's still not the kind of season we anticipated for ourselves. It's difficult when you have a level of expectation of what you want to do and you don't quite meet it."
Building on success, or for returning to the World Series for the Cardinals, becomes more and more difficult.
"It's difficult all the time," he said. "The years when it doesn't quite come as easy make you realize how special it was when everything fell into place. Just look at the parity in baseball right now. There are a lot of good clubs. We have high expectations -- not from the people on the outside, but from ourselves."
I mentioned that Sparky Anderson once told me players often forget what it took to accomplish great things the year before. And you have to keep reminding them.
"That was a wise statement," said the Cards' skipper. "The little things need to happen. It's discipline to do the little things right that make the big things happen in the long run."
Even the best teams struggle at some point during the 162-game season. The Cardinals are a good team. Matheny is convinced that any day now, the contender everyone expected will show up and stay for the remainder of the season.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.