Column: The battered Birds of Busch

The St. Louis Cardinals have somehow limped and stumbled to baseball’s best record.

In the summer of 1984, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith was on his way to his fourth (of 13) consecutive Gold Glove Awards, and Daniel LaRusso, America’s own “Karate Kid,” had just crane-kicked his way into the national spotlight.

Twenty-one years later, the Cardinals are in a similar situation as LaRusso. Although they are the owners of baseball’s best record, much like the Karate Kid, the Cardinals are on their last leg — defenseless and injured yet primed to win a championship.

As of Aug. 26, the Cardinals have 80 wins — five more wins than any other team. They have accomplished this feat through an astonishing home record and a historic pitching performance by their staff.

The Cards have given up 74 fewer runs than any other club, and the team has an ERA of 2.68, 45 points lower than the next best team.

And as hard as it may be to believe that a team can pitch and play this well in the NL Central, arguably baseball’s toughest division, it may be even more difficult to understand how the Cardinals are even still continuing to win at all.

The Cardinals currently have seven players on the disabled list, including four Opening Day starters. One-by-one, their 25-man roster has been plucked off the field by injuries, much like a farmer picking apples from his favorite tree.

These are no ordinary apples. They are the ripest of the bunch. Currently on the DL sits two-time Cy Young Award runner-up Adam Wainwright (surgery on torn Achilles tendon), seven-time All-Star Matt Holliday (right quad strain) and Clayton Kershaw’s worst nightmare, Matt Adams (surgery on torn right quad).

Rounding out the list of unfortunate souls are Opening Day starting center fielder Jon Jay (left wrist strain), one-time hopeful Rookie of the Year candidate Randal Grichuk (right elbow strain), set-up man and flame-thrower Jordan Walden (right bicep discomfort) and middle reliever Matt Belisle (right elbow inflammation).

Collectively, the Cardinals have a combined 12.8 wins above replacement from the 2014 season sitting inactive on the bench.

The current list of DL occupants does not include the number of players who have made stops at the injured player party throughout the summer. Southpaw Jaime Garcia, arguably the Cardinals hottest pitcher at the moment, sporting a 1.79 ERA, didn’t make his season debut until late May, and found himself on the DL again last month. Grichuk is currently on his own second stint on the DL, and even Lance Lynn, one of baseball’s most reliable pitchers, was out for a couple weeks in July.

Yet the Cardinals kept on winning. But unfortunately, so did both the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs. And once St. Louis’s mediocre offense was exposed (ranked 23rd in runs scored), the Redbirds hit a glass window. They recovered and are still winning, but at a much less extravagant pace, giving opportunity for the rest of the division to catch up.

Once a comfortable nine-game lead over the Pirates, now both teams sit within six games of the Redbirds in the standings. And neither is going away anytime soon.

The source for the Cardinals’ problems: their offense. With so many players unable to play, the Cardinals found themselves with Jhonny Peralta in their three-hole, and manager Mike Matheny was finding it hard to find time for rest for players like Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong. Carpenter has been as streaky as they come in 2015, and Wong has stumbled to a .145 in the month of August.

And when your offense isn’t producing, it puts pressure on the pitchers. All of a sudden, the staff seemingly had to pitch a shutout for their team to win. Relievers like Seth Maness (6.75 ERA in August) and Randy Choate (4.91 ERA in August) were pitching nearly every game and became exposed.

But don’t fret, Cardinals Nation. Reinforcements are on their way. Adams is scheduled to be rehabbing within the week, and there have been talks about a miracle return of staff-ace Wainwright.

Both Adams and Wainwright were expected to be done for the season following their initial injuries.

“Adam Wainwright came strutting in my office the other day talking about being a starter,” Matheny told ESPN on Tuesday.

To continue on, the outfield trio of Grichuk, Holliday and Jay are due back early to mid-September.

Yet, as hopeful as the coming weeks seem, the men from “The Lou” are just one sweep of the leg away from a heartbreaking defeat.

In order for the Cardinals to go far in October, they will need more consistent production from their starters, and the returns of at least one of the likes of either Holliday or Adams.

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