By John Perrotto
The St. Louis Cardinals are, at least this side of the New York Yankees, as businesslike as any team in the major leagues.
They don't celebrate wildly after wins. They don't have any colorful characters who draw attention away from the rest of the team. They don't have any players who raise a stir by making outrageous statements to the media. They don't have funny handshakes. They don't grow excessive facial hair.
However, even by the Cardinals' straight-laced standards, it was somber in their clubhouse last Sunday night after they had held on for a 6-5 victory over the Pirates at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The Pirates scored a ninth-inning run to off Trevor Rosenthal to make it a one-run game and had the bases loaded with none out before the closer escaped the jam.
"That felt like a walk-off win right there," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
Matheny was trying to stir some enthusiasm, but the feeling just wasn't there among his players. Perhaps it was because they were facing a late-night flight to St. Louis following a game that ended just past midnight. More likely, it is because this season has been a lot more difficult that the Cardinals -- or many other observers -- anticipated.
"We don't make it easy on ourselves, that's for sure," Rosenthal said, forcing a small smile. "I got the job done but I'm sure all the other guys in here wish I would have got it done a lot sooner."
Rosenthal was asked if the victory might be the spark the Cardinals have been waiting on all season.
"I hope so," he said. "But we've all been hoping so for a while now."
They are still waiting. A night later, the Cardinals were drubbed 17-5 by the hapless Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium, and their pitching staff was so tattered that utility infielder Daniel Descalso was called on to get the final out.
The Cardinals find themselves with a pedestrian 21-20 record going into a three-game home series against the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves that begins Friday night. The Cardinals are in second place in the NL Central, five games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, in a season in which they entered as the prohibitive favorite even though the division sent three teams to the postseason last year.
"We're all frustrated," third baseman Matt Carpenter said. "We know we're capable of being better than this."
The Cardinals' biggest weakness has been their clutch hitting, which was their strength last season when they hit an otherworldly .330 in those situations with a .865 OPS. The major league average in batting average/OPS in those situations was .255/.723. While that performance was certainly an outlier, St. Louis' batting average with RISP has fallen all the way to .240 with a .662 OPS, while the major league average is .245/.705.
"We see some clutch hits at times, but on a consistent basis, we expect it," Matheny said. "Easy to talk about but tough to execute and pull off. But it's avoiding us, for sure."
While leftfielder Matt Holliday (.410), Carpenter (.333) and catcher Yadier Molina (.319) have been hitting well with runners in scoring position, rightfielder Allen Craig (.206), first baseman Matt Adams (.132) and shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.121) have struggled in run-producing situations. Peralta was the Cardinals' big offseason acquisition, signed to a four-year, $53-million contract as a free agent while fellow division foes and 2013 playoffs teams Pittsburgh and Cincinnati stood relatively pat.
The Cardinals' offense woes have also carried to other situations as well. They rank 25th among the 30 major league teams in runs scored with an average of 3.76 a game and their .674 OPS is 24th.
The frustration is starting to show on the faces of the always-cool St. Louis hitters.
"Of course, you'll be upset when you're not driving runners in when they're in scoring position and we've had trouble with that all season," Adams said. "It's been frustrating for all of us but it's still early. We have guys who can hit in the clutch."
However, the season has reached the quarter pole and the Cardinals are not clicking. Matheny, though, bristles when asked if he thinks his hitters are putting too much pressure on themselves.
"I refuse to believe that's what's going on here," Matheny said. "I don't think our guys are going up there with a thought process of 'we can't get it done.' It's just you go through those periods, and right now it's a prolonged one."
So prolonged that the usually patient Cardinals' fans are becoming restless. Even Matheny, who won 88 and 97 games in his first two seasons on the job in 2012 and 2013, has been coming under fire and always-measured St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz put forth the idea this week that perhaps it would not be the worst idea in the world if the Cardinals changed managers and also got rid of hitting coach John Mabry.
"When you play for the Cardinals, there is a certain standard that is expected to be met and we haven't met it so far this season," ace right-hander Adam Wainwright said. "It's been tough on all of us. There hasn't been as much life around the team as you normally see. But we know what we need to do, and that's win some ballgames. We have the talent on this club to win a lot of games."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.