Cardinals’ ugly start is one for the birds

The National League Central favorites are playing like anything but that as they prepare to visit the Cubs on Monday.

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It has been a frustrating season so far for third baseman Nolan Arenado and the Cardinals.

Jeff Roberson/AP

SAN FRANCISCO — ‘‘The Cardinal Way’’ consists of fundamental ingredients taught at the grassroots level and has been responsible for much of a .622 winning percentage in the second halves of four consecutive non-COVID seasons and four consecutive playoff berths.

But after a historically bad start, the Cardinals will need to call on their organizational tenets to avoid being surpassed by their National League Central rivals.

‘‘It’s not to say we don’t try as hard in the first half,’’ second baseman Tommy Edman said in late April, when the Cardinals were in the midst of a 2-8 road trip. ‘‘But for whatever reason, we’ve done very well in the second half. Part of that is having a group that’s mentally strong and resilient. We stay engaged during the season. It’s a long season. To stay focused for 162 games is very tough.

‘‘We didn’t start nearly the way we wanted. We’re not panicking at all. We still have all the confidence in this group.’’

Nevertheless, this is the biggest challenge the Cardinals have encountered as a division favorite since 2015, when the wild-card Cubs overtook them in the NL Division Series.

The Cardinals (10-23 through Friday) were 10 games out of first place at the end of April for the first time since 1907. They didn’t win more than two consecutive games in April, and their loss Friday to the Tigers marked their 11th in a row in a series opener.

Third baseman Nolan Arenado hasn’t hit a home run since April 12 at hitter-friendly Coors Field and went 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position from April 11 to Tuesday.

The rotation, without ace Adam Wainwright, had a 5.24 ERA in its first 30 games.

‘‘We didn’t get off to the start we hoped,’’ said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. ‘‘But I’m reminding myself it’s still early. And I think we’re trying to mix-and-match and find that right combination where we could put that run together.

‘‘I still believe it’s a very talented club. I still believe in the talent we have and the players we have here. I’m definitely optimistic on where this is going.’’

In past seasons, Mozeliak has shown a knack for acquiring pitchers in midseason trades (J.A. Happ, Jon Lester, Jordan Montgomery, Jose Quintana) that have given the Cardinals an extra lift toward the playoffs.

But an extended malaise might cause Mozeliak to consider a sell-off, especially because Montgomery and fellow pitcher Jack Flaherty can become free agents after the season.

It has been an uneven season since the start of spring training, when 13 players on the 40-man roster reported to their respective countries to prepare for the World Baseball Classic. That included Wainwright, 41, who injured his groin while throwing a bullpen session before the start of the tournament.

Wainwright was scheduled to make his 2023 debut Saturday against the Tigers, which means he won’t face the Cubs in a three-game series starting Monday at Wrigley Field.

While many Cardinals missed various chunks of spring training, 20-year-old Jordan Walker displayed enough production to earn an Opening Day roster spot despite never having played above Double-A. Walker, the No. 4-ranked prospect by Baseball America, showed promise by hitting safely in his first 12 games and batting .274 while collecting 20 hits off 20 different pitchers.

But a lack of power and diminishing playing time convinced the Cardinals to option Walker to Triple-A Memphis on April 26 to work on altering his swing.

‘‘He’s a young talent,’’ Mozeliak said two days before Walker was optioned. ‘‘It’s good to be young and talented, but this is a game of production. So ultimately what you want to see is where are we getting that contribution. And when you look at this club right now, there are places you say you’d hope to see a little bit more.

‘‘Walker, at 20, has an amazing future. I think that part is great, but you always end up being the sum of your parts. And that’s what you have to be. Right now, we’re just slightly off.”

Consecutive losses April 24-25 to the Giants illustrated the Cardinals’ thin margin for error. A fielding error by Edman to open the seventh inning led to four runs and a loss April 24. The next night, center fielder Dylan Carlson overran an errant throw by catcher Willson Contreras on a stolen-base attempt that enabled Thairo Estrada to score from first in the second inning of another loss.

Cardinals veterans still are banking that their talent will match their knack for strong second halves.

‘‘We’ve had a lot of guys get hot for a couple of days,’’ pitcher Miles Mikolas said. ‘‘But guys aren’t getting hot all at the same time. Some guys are a little sporadic in our performances. Once we get synched up as a group, it will be smooth sailing.’’

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