St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, right, argues a call...

St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol, right, argues a call with umpire Junior Valentine, left, during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Friday, May 5, 2023, in St. Louis. Credit: AP/Jeff Le

The reeling Mets entered this weekend having lost 14 of their previous 17 games, sabotaged by a patchwork rotation and  AWOL offense.The Yankees, trying to stay afloat in baseball’s toughest division, were barely above .500 and still in the AL East cellar.

The Cardinals: Hold my beer.

There are different degrees of bad. The underachieving New Yorkers ultimately could prove their awfulness to be temporary afflictions. Others, like the Rockies, Nationals and Royals, are unapologetic about having their October golf vacations booked.

The A’s? They’re in a special category of terrible, reserved for franchises that don’t even pretend to be trying, as we witnessed this past  week in the Bronx.

But down in St. Louis, home of the second-most World Series titles (11) in the sport, the Cardinals’ dismal performance has earned them a D grade — as in dysfunction.

Losing is one thing. It happens. Baseball is a game of failure, and even the very best teams wind up with an L more than 60 times every season.

The way in which you accumulate those losses, however, can delve into madness, as long-time observers of the Mets can attest. Using “Mets” as a verb didn’t come into our lexicon by accident. It was earned by some turbulent whack-a-doo seasons in Flushing.

And that brings us back to the Cardinals, one of MLB’s truly bulletproof brands, a storied franchise of Stan the Man that annually basks in the unconditional love native to the Midwest, especially by this stretch of Mississippi shoreline.

I was at Busch Stadium the day Larry Walker — who just arrived via the Rockies trade — got a standing ovation for striking out on four pitches in his first at-bat. You can’t find that type of adoration anywhere else.

But Cardinals Nation isn’t so forgiving these days, not with their heroes off to a 14-25 start (through Friday’s games) and anchored in the basement of the NL Central for this weekend’s 2004 World Series rematch at Fenway Park. After Friday’s 8-6 comeback victory over the Red Sox, the Cardinals were 7 1/2 games behind the division-leading Pirates and 5 1/2 games out of a wild-card berth, behind the Pirates, Phillies and Diamondbacks.

Say what you want about the Mets and Yankees squandering the top two payrolls, but the Cardinals’ ineptitude to this point dwarfs both of them. It doesn’t come cheap, either, at a current cost of $201 million for luxury-tax purposes (h/t to FanGraphs). Also, the carnival between the lines has placed the job of second-year manager Oliver Marmol in jeopardy, a danger that his New York counterparts certainly aren’t facing.

Marmol got the ball rolling this season when he benched Tyler O’Neill for the sixth game because of his lack of hustle on the basepaths in the previous night’s loss, the middle game of a three-game sweep by Atlanta. Rather than set a tone, however, the penalty handed down for that “unacceptable” behavior was only the tip of the iceberg for the disaster to follow.

Presumably, the Cardinals are giving a professional effort. But the rotation has been a dumpster fire with a 5.40 ERA that ranked 24th in the majors — actually worse than the Mets (5.38) heading into this weekend. Jack Flaherty’s inexplicable 6.18 ERA is one of the bigger red flags, with former Met  Steven Matz not far behind at 5.70. But instead of looking in the mirror to address these problems, the Cardinals’ starting staff pointed their fingers at pricey offseason pickup Willson Contreras, who signed a five-year, $87.5 million deal.

Contreras, a former Cub, got all that money to be the heir apparent to  beloved Cardinals icon Yadier Molina, who retired at the end of last season. Molina, a 10-time All-Star, was the catcher in St. Louis for 19 years. Contreras didn’t even make it two months as Marmol announced last week that he was being moved to DH and Andrew Knizner was taking over the backstop duties.  

“There’s certain things and ways we operate that Willson’s still taking to and learning,” Marmol told reporters. “It’s a difficult thing coming from a different organization and learning all of it. So we have an internal strategy to help with all of that and we’ll start moving in that direction the next several weeks.

“We’re not losing ballgames because Willson Contreras is behind the plate. I want to be super-clear on that.”

If that’s the case, the timing  certainly was suspicious, as the Cardinals were in the midst of an eight-game losing streak when Contreras got the boot. You can bet the St. Louis pitching staff had a voice in the discussion as well, and its team-wide 4.77 ERA was pretty much the torpedo that sank Contreras.

Early May is quick to start pointing fingers, and a mutiny like this typically results in a change of scenery for someone. Unless, of course, the Cardinals somehow stage an incredible rebound from the worst record in the National League. They still have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the pair that finished first and third in last season’s MVP voting, so this lineup can do damage despite ranking 12th in runs per game (4.45) and 11th in OPS (.746). St. Louis was sixth and fifth, respectively, in those categories a season ago.

This isn’t looking like the Cardinals' year. But although they're on a 58-win pace, the NL Central is hardly a powerhouse, and FanGraphs still gives them a 24.0% chance of making the playoffs (15.9 to win the division). That’s better than the second-place Pirates (14.1/9.1) and Reds (1.7/1.0).

The Cardinals’ last losing season was 2007, their only one since 2000, and that 23-year stretch includes 16 playoff appearances and two World Series titles. But this a new experience for everyone at Busch Stadium, a place where the guys in red are hearing boos for the first time in what feels like forever.

“One thing that I like about our fans is they have high expectations,” Goldschmidt told reporters last week after the boos rained down. “I’ve said that before when things are going good and bad, too. Look at the performance. It doesn’t lie.” 

Straight from a New Yorker’s playbook. It’s not such a unique event here, especially during this disappointing season. But when it comes to dysfunction, the Cardinals appear to be the frontrunners this year. 

ON SECOND THOUGHT

The Mets were the best club in the majors at overturning umpire's calls last year during their 101-win season. Manager Buck Showalter and video guru Harrison Friedland teamed up for a 78.79% success rate, but replay’s dynamic duo — much like the team’s on-field performance overall — is having trouble repeating what they did last year.

The Showalter/Friedland tandem is at 14.3% (1-for-7) this season, well below the MLB success rate of 40.7% (127-for-312) through Wednesday’s games. Marlins rookie manager Skip Schumaker currently leads the sport at 80% (4-for-5). Granted, challenges have been, umm, more challenging this year, as managers have to immediately raise their hands to signal the umpires (rather than a loosely-enforced 10-second window) and must decide in 15 seconds, down from the 20 of last season.

Still, Showalter has always been among baseball’s best at overturning calls, ranking third among active managers. The top five:

Success % ......... Manager, Team ... Games

60.811                  Bruce Bochy, Rangers       4,070

59.13                   Aaron Boone, Yanks            748

57.368                 Buck Showalter, Mets          3,270

55.556                 Oliver Marmol, Cardinals      201

55.455                 Alex Cora, Red Sox .            687

SOURCE: baseball-reference.com

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