Week Ahead: Cardinals among flawed contenders seeking fixes

Even Albert Pujols has struggled this season -- by his standards, at least.
Even Albert Pujols has struggled this season — by his standards, at least.

Last Monday, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, in an effort to jump-start a slumbering offense, did the unthinkable.

He moved Albert Pujols into the cleanup spot in the lineup for five games—after 1,046 consecutive starts in the three-hole for the first baseman. It was by no means a permanent move—"I think we’re going to have most of the games played this year where (Matt Holliday) hits fourth and Albert hits third," La Russa said. "That’s the better lineup."—but it does show that La Russa is taking his team’s offensive struggles seriously.

Identifying and correcting flaws are just part of the arduous journey to the postseason. For three contenders—the Cardinals, Red Sox and Marlins—identifying those flaws is the easy part. And there’s no time like the present to try to fix them, right?

Cardinals

The flaw: lack of offense

The situation: Since hitting their high-water mark of 18-8 after a win in Philadelphia on May 3, the Cardinals have gone 8-10; they failed to score more than four runs in 13 of those games. In the five games Pujols hit cleanup, the Cardinals went 4-1 and averaged 4.6 runs per game; in Pujols’ first game back in the No. 3 slot, on Saturday, the Cardinals scored seven runs but lost to the Angels.

Pujols, La Russa spar: Failed steal attempt touches off dugout exchange

"The more the horses in the middle produce, the less they (the rest of the lineup) feel like they have to do," La Russa said. "Key guys being themselves will help them, but in the end, when it comes down to you, you really should ignore what the other guys are doing and just take your at-bat. Just do what you can do. You can’t force."

Up next: The Cardinals visit the Padres, who have the best team ERA in the majors.

Red Sox

The flaw: starting pitching

The situation: It’s hard to imagine this would be a problem area for the Red Sox this year. But Josh Beckett was ineffective before he went on the disabled list—a 7.29 ERA in eight starts—and they entered the week with a 4.84 ERA from their starters, which was 13th out of the 14 AL teams. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s flirtation with a no-hitter against the Phillies on Saturday was impressive, but he’s been all over the place in his five starts—two gems, three clunkers. Tim Wakefield also was impressive this weekend, with eight scoreless innings against the Phillies in place of Beckett. More is needed for Boston, though, because the Sox entered the week eight games behind the division-leading Rays.

Up next: The Red Sox visit the Rays, who outscored Boston 24-9 in a four-game sweep in Fenway earlier this season.

Marlins

The flaw: shoddy defense

The situation: OK, so maybe the Marlins are more of a wild-card contender than a threat to the Phillies in the NL East, but with that starting rotation, they’re certainly a dangerous squad. The Marlins, though, have made more errors than any other team in the NL, and their .978 fielding percentage is the worst in the league. This isn’t exactly a new issue for the Marlins; they were third in the NL in errors in 2009 and second in 2008.

"When we’re struggling, it’s usually pitching, but the defense compounds it," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "What I mean by that, you make an error, now you gotta make that pitcher throw an extra 10-12 pitches to get out of the inning." Mental errors, too—including but not limited to those by star shortstop Hanley Ramirez—can be just as costly as the actual errors that are recorded in the scorebook.

Up next: The Marlins host the Braves, one of the better contact teams in the NL—they only average a strikeout every 5.8 at-bats, compared to the Diamondbacks, who average a strikeout every 4.22 at-bats.

Ryan Fagan is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at rfagan@sportingnews.com, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ryan_fagan.

Even Albert Pujols has struggled this season -- by his standards, at least.
Even Albert Pujols has struggled this season — by his standards, at least.

Last Monday, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, in an effort to jump-start a slumbering offense, did the unthinkable.

He moved Albert Pujols into the cleanup spot in the lineup for five games—after 1,046 consecutive starts in the three-hole for the first baseman. It was by no means a permanent move—"I think we’re going to have most of the games played this year where (Matt Holliday) hits fourth and Albert hits third," La Russa said. "That’s the better lineup."—but it does show that La Russa is taking his team’s offensive struggles seriously.

Identifying and correcting flaws are just part of the arduous journey to the postseason. For three contenders—the Cardinals, Red Sox and Marlins—identifying those flaws is the easy part. And there’s no time like the present to try to fix them, right?

Cardinals

The flaw: lack of offense

The situation: Since hitting their high-water mark of 18-8 after a win in Philadelphia on May 3, the Cardinals have gone 8-10; they failed to score more than four runs in 13 of those games. In the five games Pujols hit cleanup, the Cardinals went 4-1 and averaged 4.6 runs per game; in Pujols’ first game back in the No. 3 slot, on Saturday, the Cardinals scored seven runs but lost to the Angels.

Pujols, La Russa spar: Failed steal attempt touches off dugout exchange

"The more the horses in the middle produce, the less they (the rest of the lineup) feel like they have to do," La Russa said. "Key guys being themselves will help them, but in the end, when it comes down to you, you really should ignore what the other guys are doing and just take your at-bat. Just do what you can do. You can’t force."

Up next: The Cardinals visit the Padres, who have the best team ERA in the majors.

Red Sox

The flaw: starting pitching

The situation: It’s hard to imagine this would be a problem area for the Red Sox this year. But Josh Beckett was ineffective before he went on the disabled list—a 7.29 ERA in eight starts—and they entered the week with a 4.84 ERA from their starters, which was 13th out of the 14 AL teams. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s flirtation with a no-hitter against the Phillies on Saturday was impressive, but he’s been all over the place in his five starts—two gems, three clunkers. Tim Wakefield also was impressive this weekend, with eight scoreless innings against the Phillies in place of Beckett. More is needed for Boston, though, because the Sox entered the week eight games behind the division-leading Rays.

Up next: The Red Sox visit the Rays, who outscored Boston 24-9 in a four-game sweep in Fenway earlier this season.

Marlins

The flaw: shoddy defense

The situation: OK, so maybe the Marlins are more of a wild-card contender than a threat to the Phillies in the NL East, but with that starting rotation, they’re certainly a dangerous squad. The Marlins, though, have made more errors than any other team in the NL, and their .978 fielding percentage is the worst in the league. This isn’t exactly a new issue for the Marlins; they were third in the NL in errors in 2009 and second in 2008.

"When we’re struggling, it’s usually pitching, but the defense compounds it," Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "What I mean by that, you make an error, now you gotta make that pitcher throw an extra 10-12 pitches to get out of the inning." Mental errors, too—including but not limited to those by star shortstop Hanley Ramirez—can be just as costly as the actual errors that are recorded in the scorebook.

Up next: The Marlins host the Braves, one of the better contact teams in the NL—they only average a strikeout every 5.8 at-bats, compared to the Diamondbacks, who average a strikeout every 4.22 at-bats.

Ryan Fagan is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at rfagan@sportingnews.com, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ryan_fagan.

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