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Bob Nightengale: Cardinals' Mike Matheny feeling heat

| Wednesday, July 4, 2018, 6:09 p.m.
Mike Matheny's Cardinals are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight season.
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Mike Matheny's Cardinals are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight season.

The good folks of St. Louis can feel it. They sense it. And they certainly can see it.

Groundhog Day.

The Cardinals, one of baseball's proudest and most prestigious franchises, winners of 11 World Series championships, with 12 playoff berths since 2000, are stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity.

They were 43-41 entering Fourth of July, nearly closer to the last-place Cincinnati Reds than the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central, 6 12 games out of first place. They are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season, for the first time since 1996-99.

“That's embarrassing,” said outfielder Tommy Pham, one of the team leaders. “You never want to see something like that happen to this franchise. That's on us.”

Or, as Cardinals Nation might tell you, it's on manager Mike Matheny. Or hitting coach John Mabry. Or club president John Mozeliak. Or owner Bill DeWitt.

They want someone to pay for this era of mediocrity. And no one is feeling the heat more than Matheny.

“People who tell you they're used to it,” Matheny told USA Today, “are lying. There's a very small percentage of people in this world that can truly say they don't care when it comes to stuff like that and truly mean it. Unfortunately, I'm not in that small percentage. I'm not in the business of gaining public approval, but to say you're completely unfazed by it, that's hard to say.”

It's hardly Matheny's fault his team is littered with guys who can't field but can hit. Guys who can hit but can't field.

That Dexter Fowler, their highest-paid player, is having the worst season of his career, hitting .171 with a .554 OPS, third worst of any player in baseball. That Pham, their MVP last season, ended a 0-for-31 drought Sunday and is hitting .245 with a .741 OPS compared to .306 with a .931 OPS of a year ago.

That closer Greg Holland, who signed for $14 million after the season started, had to use regular-season games as his spring training and is yielding a 6.30 ERA with 39 baserunners in 20 innings. That electric rookie pitcher Alex Reyes' season ended after four innings.

That Marcell Ozuna, with only 19 extra-base hits, is no Giancarlo Stanton. That first baseman/right fielder Jose Martinez is playing in the wrong league, committing seven of their major league-leading 69 errors.

Yet if the Cardinals miss the postseason again, someone is going to pay the price, and Matheny — with former Yankees manager Joe Girardi on the market — is a convenient fall guy.

“I'm not living in some fantasy world,” said Matheny, who has led his team to more postseason games than anyone else in baseball in his first six seasons. “We all have a job to do. I get it. The high expectations people have on us, I have higher on myself.

“Hey, we live in a city that just loves this team. In St. Louis, it's the show. Everybody has a lot invested into it. We want the product to look right, too. That creates an atmosphere, and with that comes expectations. That's what we signed up for. We signed up for those expectations. We care enough to put the blame on ourselves, too. If the heat comes, it comes. Whether people believe it's justified or not is irrelevant.”

Another way to view the Cardinals' record: They're 9-1 against the Reds, 34-40 against everyone else.

“In a lot of ways, this feels very much the same way as it has the last couple of years,” Mozeliak said. “There are times you get excited about the club. There are times you don't. It's just been tough for us to get going.”

The Cardinals are caught in such a quagmire that they don't know whether they'll be buyers, sellers or bystanders at the July 31 nonwaiver deadline.

Certainly, Mozeliak was faced with his own predicament Monday when he ridiculed Fowler's performance and effort on the Cardinals' podcast and had to apologize to Fowler, who was away on paternity leave. Fowler returns Thursday to a team that no longer has a starting job for him, a city that has turned on him, with a mutual parting expected this winter.

“I've had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and energy level,” Mozeliak said on Cardinals TV broadcaster Dan McLaughlin's podcast. “And those are things I can't defend. I try to create opportunities for him, but not if it's at the expense of other players who are hustling and playing hard.”

Mozeliak, after reflecting on his comments a day later, said, “I hate that it come out wrong. I do think he's at a level of frustration. But it came out that I was questioning his effort. It's unfortunate. I talked to Dex. Everything is fine.”

Fowler was inundated with calls and messages from his teammates and former teammates, with even Cubs manager Joe Maddon coming out and defending Fowler. The Cardinals will decide this winter whether they'll trade him or even if he wants out. He has a full no-trade clause and is owed $49.5 million the next three years.

Maybe it's all Stanton's fault? He's the one the Cardinals wanted this winter, recruiting him to come to St. Louis and even working out a trade with the Marlins. Stanton declined and went for the bright lights of New York.

Would life be any different for the Cardinals if Stanton was manning right field, where the Cardinals have had the lowest production — .199 with a .345 slugging percentage — in baseball?

“I don't know; I just don't,” Mozeliak said. “I really haven't thought about that. No sense worrying about that now.”

The Cardinals soon will have reinforcements, with power-hitting shortstop Paul DeJong returning this weekend. He should be followed by relievers Luke Gregerson and Matt Bowman. Starter Michael Wacha is expected back after the All-Star break.

Maybe then, and only then, can Mozeliak and the front office fully evaluate this team and determine its path at the trade deadline.

“We're going to explore both sides what it looks like,” Mozeliak says. “We have to be open-minded to short-term gains or long-term views.

“Our team has just never been full throttle. The good news is there's a lot of baseball left.”

If the Cardinals turn it around and end their mini-playoff drought, Matheny will be back for his eighth season. If not, it's hard to envision changes won't be made, with four new coaches on his staff this year and Mabry under even more scrutiny than Matheny.

“I see the attacks going on, and the stuff they say about John bothers me way more than anything they're saying about me,” Matheny said. “John is such a good hitting coach and puts in so many hours watching video or in the cage, I'll try to cut him back. Nobody wants to give him any credit when things are going well or when young guys are stepping up. It's frustrating when he gets attacked.

“But we are going to turn this around. This team still has all of the makings of being a very, very good team. We're not that far away from having a hot streak and being in first place. It's not like we're seeing a team dead in the water.

“We're going to fight right to the end.”

Bob Nightengale is a columnist for USA Today.

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