ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals came into Friday having won 19 of their past 24 games largely on the exploits of the off-the-charts hitting of Paul Goldschmidt, Albert Pujols’ stirring power surge and Nolan Arenado’s all-around brilliance.
However, those highlights have overshadowed a somewhat revolving door the Cardinals have had in the middle infield and with two of the three outfield spots because of the struggles of several of their players hitting lower in the order.
With Paul DeJong, Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill struggling at the plate and standout rookie Nolan Gorman occasionally showing warts defensively at second base, manager Oliver Marmol has been forced to use a mix-and-match approach to filling out his lineup card. Suddenly, a Cardinals squad that went eight straight games without an error has had a fielding miscue in the past seven games.
“Half of those [errors] are probably my fault,” said Gorman, whose throwing error on a potential double play led to two early runs in an unsightly 11-4 loss to the Braves on Friday at Busch Stadium. “Errors are going to happen in this game, but we definitely take pride in defense. I’m out there every day working on it and trying to get better.”
Of course, it didn’t help the Cardinals defense on Friday when Arenado — the nine-time Gold Glover who is arguably the best ever at his position — was away following the birth of his first child. When wife, Laura, went into labor early Thursday, Arenado rushed from Chicago to St. Louis for the birth of their child. Under terms of the CBA, Arenado has 72 hours to spend with his family from him, but the Cardinals are hopeful he might return sooner.
Gorman, one of MLB’s top rookies with 13 home runs, is in the lineup because of his bat. Gorman delivered in that aspect Friday, driving a ball off the wall for a double in the fourth inning and singing to lead off the ninth.
Marmol has gotten Gorman’s powerful bat into the lineup more in the past week — even admittedly at the expense of the defense — because of the offensive struggles of DeJong. DeJong, who started the season slowly and worked his way back to the Cardinals following a more-than two-month Minor League stint, has been good defensively at shortstop, but he is in a 2-for-37 skid with 19 strikeouts. The versatility of Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman — infielders who can play second, short or third — allows Marmol to try to balance stellar defense with offensive production from his middle infielders.
“You’re trying to balance that,” Marmol said. “If you’re going to go with defense at shortstop, then you find a way for Donovan’s on-base [knack] to be in the lineup somewhere. and then [a place for] Gorman’s power to be in the lineup somewhere. And then you mix and match accordingly.”
Similar problems have also arisen in the outfield — even though they have tended to fly under the radar somewhat because the production from the middle of the order has been so robust and the pitching staff has stabilized following the Trade Deadline acquisitions of Jordan Montgomery and Friday’s losing pitcher, Jose Quintana.
O’Neill had 34 home runs and 80 RBIs last season while surging to an eighth-place finish in NL MVP voting, but this season has been mostly a disjointed mess because of alternating injuries and struggles. After a brief surge in production following the break for the All-Star break, O’Neill came into Friday hitting just .213 with a .637 OPS in August. Marmol discussed seeing “flashes” from O’Neill, and that was the case again Friday when he smashed a two-run home run in his final at-bat.
As for Carlson, he played so well in center field when Harrison Bader went down with a foot injury that he rendered the 2021 Gold Glover tradeable. And when the Cardinals resisted all trade offers that included the former first-round pick at the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline, it meant Carlson would likely be the center fielder of the future.
However, Carlson’s struggles to put much of anything together as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching appears to have stunted his growth. Too often, pitchers have been able to get him out with hard stuff up high and offspeed stuff down and away. Going into Friday’s game, Carlson had a .324 batting average and a .904 OPS right-handed, while he had hit just .213 with a .637 OPS as a lefty.
“Obviously, having your best defense out there is helpful, but those guys need to produce against right-handed pitching,” Marmol said of O’Neill and Carlson. “They’re working at it, for sure. They get going and they are two pieces who could be extremely helpful for us.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism