With everything going wrong, the Cardinals still see opportunity
By Tyler Kepner
Oliver Marmol wanted a bagel Saturday morning. This is New York, so it should have been easy to get one. But this is also 2023, and Marmol manages the St. Louis Cardinals. Nothing comes easily.
“It didn’t work out,” Marmol said. “The line was outrageous. The door guy at the hotel said to just skip the line and walk in. I thought about it, maybe that’s a thing. I saw the line and I didn’t think that was the play.”
The way things are going, Marmol said, he might have provoked another customer and ended up in a fight. He didn’t get a black eye, but he didn’t get a bagel, either. Just another slice of satisfaction missing from a season gone sideways.
Saturday afternoon was better for Marmol, whose Cardinals snapped a six-game losing streak with a 5-3 victory over the New York Mets at Citi Field. But it was only the third win for the Cardinals in June, and their 28-43 record was the worst for the franchise through 71 games since 1978. The Cardinals (29-43) beat the Mets again Sunday 8-7 when Nolan Arenado hit his second home run of the game in the top of the ninth inning to break a 7-7 tie.
They have the third-worst record in the National League, percentage points better than the Washington Nationals and the Colorado Rockies — a dizzying fall for a Tiffany brand. The Cardinals — second to the New York Yankees in overall championships, with 11 — have endured just one losing season this century, in 2007, and have reached the playoffs in each of the past four years.
“You see where we’re at and we’re like, ‘Whoa,’ you know?” said Arenado, the star third baseman. “We understand the magnitude of what’s going on because no Cardinal team has lost this bad in, like, 70 years. All those things we hear about, we know them and we’re trying to find a way out of it. But it’s tough right now, for sure. The more we think about the past and all that, I think it’s hurting us.”
The past is also rejecting the Cardinals. On Saturday, the team announced that David Freese, who had won a fan vote for election to the team’s Hall of Fame, had turned down the honor. Freese, who was named the MVP for the Cardinals in their last World Series victory, in 2011, said he appreciated the votes but did not deserve a vaunted red jacket.
The Cardinals’ last active link to that era, Adam Wainwright (an 18-year veteran who was injured for the 2011 run), had his longest start of the season Saturday, working 6 1/3 innings for his 198th career victory.
Wainwright had his usual sharp-spinning curveball, which — for Cardinals fans, not Mets fans — always evokes memories of better days. He hopes more will follow.
“Usually chemistry leads to wins, and these guys in here, we couldn’t get along better,” Wainwright said. “We had an incredible dinner the other night, we’ve had great meetings, we’ve had great messages. I think we let the pressure mount on stuff a little bit too much at times, where everybody’s kind of playing stiff and afraid to make mistakes. It’s sometimes hard to get out of that when you’re in it.”
Wainwright, 41, will retire after this season, a year after two other decorated Cardinals, Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols, said goodbye. The absence of Molina has seemed especially vexing for the Cardinals, who signed a three-time All-Star catcher, Willson Contreras, to a five-year, $87.5 million contract, only to pull him from the starting role in early May.
The move seemed rash, as if the team was blaming the new guy for its poor start. Contreras shifted to designated hitter and even took fly balls in the outfield, but he never played there in a game. He was back as the starting catcher after 10 games.
Even so, Contreras has been one of several underperforming hitters. He was batting just .198 Thursday when he got a pep talk from a mentor, retired slugger Victor Martinez, also a former All-Star catcher from Venezuela. Martinez called Contreras to offer support.
“He’s like my second dad,” Contreras said. “Everything that he says, I’m all ears. If I have any doubts or questions, I can call him anytime and he’ll pick up the phone. We message each other almost every week, but that was bigger. I needed to talk to someone.”
Contreras, who skipped the World Baseball Classic in March to learn a new pitching staff, has continued his efforts to lead. In Friday’s game, he met with reliever Génesis Cabrera at the mound, trying to boost Cabrera’s confidence while the pitcher made warm-up tosses to a backup. He did something similar with relievers Saturday.
“In my seat, if you think about how do we get out of this nonsense, it’s going to come down to certain pieces getting to where they start doing what we think they’re capable of doing,” Marmol said. “And yesterday, Willson was a part of that.”
Marmol, who at 36 is the youngest manager in baseball, met individually with nine players Friday, urging them to tune out negativity and, he said, “getting them to understand what’s possible for them.” Those lessons might not take hold immediately, he added, but they have to be taught.
In the short term, Marmol’s bigger concern is the team’s poor defense. Injuries to outfielders Lars Nootbaar and Tyler O’Neill have forced St. Louis to move Tommy Edman — a Gold Glove second baseman — to center, which has thrust others out of position and hurt a low-strikeout staff.
“When you have one of your best defenders playing the outfield that should be playing second, it affects a lot of other things, including our pitching,” Marmol said. “It’s a real thing. That part of it is tough because it goes hand in hand with a pitching staff that doesn’t miss bats. You’ve got a lot of balls to play, and that’s a bigger deal.”
Through Friday, the Cardinals’ outfield ranked last in turning fly balls into outs, according to Sports Info Solutions, which rated the Cardinals 27th in overall defense, ahead of only Kansas City, Oakland and Washington. The Cardinals, accordingly, were tied with the A’s and the Colorado Rockies for most hits allowed per nine innings, with 9.6.
It is jarring for a perennial contender to be on lists with rebuilding teams. That is where the Cardinals find themselves, but at least they can find comfort in the standings. The Milwaukee Brewers, who are leading the NL Central, were three games over .500 through Sunday.
“We’ve dug ourselves a hole, but nobody’s running away with the division,” Arenado said. “So there’s still an opportunity to shock some people. I think that’s what’s keeping us motivated.”
A division title for the lordly Cardinals would not have seemed shocking in spring training. Now that it does, it puts St. Louis in a rare position: underdogs. They are willing to embrace the new identity.
“Absolutely,” Arenado said. “I think that’s the only way we can think about the season, right? There’s still an opportunity there. It’s just a matter of if we want to take it.”