As Cardinals continue fight for .500, can they stay afloat in the National League?

ST. LOUIS — Sonny Gray stood in front of his locker, frustrated with his outing and lacking an explanation for his recent stretch of subpar performances.

“Pitched like s—,” Gray said after the St. Louis Cardinals lost 3-2 to the Colorado Rockies in the opener of a four-game series. “It’s a trend. Trending in the wrong direction.”

Gray allowed three runs over 4 2/3 innings to a team that entered play Thursday a whopping 19 games under .500. It was his shortest stint as a Cardinal. His four walks told the story in the box score, and Gray will be the first to say he’s underperformed for the last three weeks. He’s recorded just 26 1/3 innings over his past five starts and has allowed 13 earned runs. That’s a 4.44 ERA over that span, a far cry from the 0.89 ERA he notched over his first five starts of the season.

“That’s not the job of a starting pitcher,” Gray said. “The job of a starting pitcher is not to go through spurts of great. The job is to stay out there for as long as you can and put your team in a position to win.”

The focus of Thursday’s game will be on Gray and a lackluster offense that fell short against Rockies starter Cal Quantrill, who walked four over five shutout innings. But the bigger picture goes beyond an uninspiring loss to one of the league’s weakest teams.

Entering play Thursday, just four teams in the National League with a winning record. Those teams — the Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers — are clearly above the secondary tier, a group of seven clubs that are five games under .500 or fewer. This tier includes the Cardinals, who were a ghastly nine games under .500 on May 12 but have hovered around the even mark for the last two weeks. The Cardinals’ loss Thursday dropped them to 29-32.

The Cardinals have company as the Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates entered play Thursday all separated by just two games in the wild-card standings. Like St. Louis, all these teams have their fair share of issues and concerns. But the Cardinals are in a favorable stretch of the calendar. Thursday night’s contest kicked off 16 straight games against opponents with records at .500 or below. The St. Louis could take advantage by stringing together some wins and perhaps distancing themselves from the .500-ish pack.

But are they constructed to do so?

Willson Contreras is on the injured list for at least a few more weeks (though he could be cleared to resume baseball activity as early as Friday). So are Lars Nootbaar and Tommy Edman. The Cardinals have tried to patch up their fifth spot of their rotation in Steven Matz’s absence but to no avail. The team is still waiting for the bats of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado to resemble expectations, and are relying on two rookie catchers to anchor a veteran-laden rotation.

The starting outfield consists of Brendan Donovan, Michael Siani and Alec Burleson, far from what the club envisioned in spring training. The lineup fluidity is virtually non-existent. St. Louis regularly deploys a starting lineup with at least five left-handed hitters, leaving opposing managers with ideal lanes to play matchups with their relievers in late innings. This wouldn’t be too much of a concern if the Cardinals possessed true right-handed options off the bench.

Jordan Walker remains in Triple A, working extensively to adjust a swing that seems to be a perpetual work in progress. Dylan Carlson is mired in a slump that has reduced his role to a pinch hitter; he’s just 6-for-54 with a ghastly .369 OPS since returning from his sprained shoulder joint in early May. José Fermín, recalled from Memphis for the second time this season, has hardly fared better. He’s hitting .143 with a .393 OPS in 13 games.

The Cardinals’ bullpen, arguably one of the deepest and most effective in the league, has helped keep the Cardinals afloat. While the patchwork roster has worked to an extent, sustainability questions remain. The lack of depth on the 40-man roster and in Triple-A does little to diminish those concerns.

The time of season makes it somewhat difficult for John Mozeliak and the front office to look for external help. Eight weeks remain until MLB’s trade deadline. Rarely do organizations pull off major trades before then. There are next to no free agents on the market, and it’s not like the waiver wires are blossoming with opportunity in the first week of June.

But improving the ballclub is not impossible, should Mozeliak elect to do so. What the Cardinals must decide, from both a front office and ownership perspective, is if they are comfortable rolling out a flawed roster knowing the majority of their competition is doing the same. As long as the team remains in contention, they can justify that decision (as unpopular as it might be with the fan base).

Addressing their needs would give the Cardinals their best shot at gaining some ground in the standings. However, so would better overall performance from their current roster. The opportunity from a schedule perspective allows for a chance to break out from the sub .500 thresholds, and maybe even collect some sorely needed wins.

It’s up to the team whether or not they seize it.

(Photo of Sonny Gray: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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