When the St. Louis Cardinals arrived July 29 at PNC Park, they had the look, the feel, and perhaps the fate of a very tired baseball team.
They only had flown in from Atlanta, but their appearance suggested they were on the Air Insomnia red-eye from Brazil, which we now know to be a transoceanic adventure, thanks to a weekend Fox broadcast.
"This is [pitcher Andre] Rienzo, 25 years old," went the play-by-play on the Fox regional telecast between the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, "and we already said [he is] from Brazil, signed by the White Sox as a free agent out of Brazil. Just showing again where baseball has come, you know, going over to Europe and signing these players. It used to be just South America, but now they're goin' all over the world."
Now a short break so that we may slowly wag our heads in a disgusted lament/moment of silence for geographic literacy.
As I was saying, the Cardinals looked tired when they were here two weeks ago, and, when manager Mike Matheny decided he had seen enough of catcher Yadier Molina trying to play on one leg that he yanked him in the fourth inning of that doubleheader the Pirates were sweeping, you knew the mood in the visiting clubhouse postgame would be lacking only for a casket.
It wasn't that festive.
"I tried to play through, but it's just getting worse," Molina said about his knee as he pulled on a yellow golf shirt. "Catching is a position where you have to be 100 percent. You can't play at 75 percent. The smart thing to do is to give it a chance to rest."
Molina flew to St. Louis the next morning. The Cardinals took one look at his MRI and put him on the disabled list, where he has been resting since. The ballclub, however, remains essentially somnambulant.
Mugged and relieved of their first-place credentials in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals are 5-7 without Molina, 5-13 in their past 18 games, and a perfectly indifferent 32-32 since June 1. Having managed one win in the just-completed three-game series against the visiting Chicago Chlubs, Matheny spoke again of his club's need for rest.
"These guys, they're tired; there's no question about it," Matheny told his post-game media herd Sunday. "This has been a rough go. And they deserve a half-day [off] today and a full day [Monday]. And we're locking the clubhouse doors just in case anybody has a stupid idea."
Nine presumably critical games remain between the Cardinals and Pirates, six of them in St. Louis, the first tonight on the banks of the Mississippi River. First place again is on the table in this three-game series that should mark the return of Molina for a Thursday afternoon game, although the Pirates risk losing no more than a share of first and could shove St. Louis to four games back again, even an unprecedented six games back.
Something like that actually is more likely than you might think. Despite the Pirates' lost weekend in the Rockies, where their pitching had a dizzy spell and their offense lacked for oxygen, there is a certain quality to Cardinals pitching that somehow reincarnates the Lumber Company.
Pirates hitting has existed all summer as pretty much a mutually exclusive term, like George Carlin's jumbo shrimp or Congressional ethics, but, when they play the Cardinals, the Pirates bat .283, better than the Detroit Tigers, the top offensive team in baseball. Against everybody else, the Pirates bat .234, worse than the Houston Astros, the worst offensive team in baseball that is not named the Miami Marlins.
The offense is hoping for a jolt of adrenaline from Andrew Lambo, a lefthanded-hitting basher who smote 31 homers this season at Altoona and Indianapolis. Lambo, a native Californian acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers along with pitcher James McDonald at the trade deadline three years ago for reliever Octavio Dotel, has just been called up from Class AAA and potentially fills the lineup's right-field sink hole.
The timing seems apt, as homers have virtually disappeared from Clint Hurdle's arsenal this month. There have been five in August, and the National League's leading home run hitter, Pedro Alvarez lest we forget, is currently tied with teammate Josh Harrison in the August homer category with ... let me look, one.
The Cardinals, you should know, are every bit as hopeful for a waterfall of runs, at least in the series opener tonight against Charlie Morton. It was against Morton that St. Louis salvaged one game of the five at PNC Park two weeks ago, the one in which the Cardinals nipped the Pirates, 13-0. They had 10 hits in the 25 at-bats they wedged into six innings against Morton that night, so now their vs.-Charlie Morton batting average is .341.
So the average Cardinals batter coming to the plate tonight is essentially Lou Gehrig. Actually a little better. That ought to wake up somebody.
Gene Collier: email@example.com.