The cards already are stacked against the St. Louis nine with unvaccinated sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado absent from the two-game series beginning Tuesday night in Toronto.
Added to this fact is that only a few Cardinals on the trip have played in Rogers Centre. That basically covers Adam Wainwright, Albert Pujols, Corey Dickerson and T.J. McFarland. Even Canadian Tyler O’Neill, who is from the Vancouver area, never has played a big-league game in Toronto — although he said he would have a few family and friends trek across the provinces to see him.
But perhaps the most important element in play is that even with Goldschmidt and Arenado playing, the Cardinals have had a dickens of a time with the American League East Division this season. With these two games and three with the New York Yankees remaining in August, the Cardinals are only 3-8 against the AL East this year.
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Offering some perspective, the Cardinals are 10 games over .500 against the National League and intrastate interleague rival Kansas City and five under against the AL East.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said the clubs in that division are “pretty darned good. They really are.”
Collectively, the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox and Orioles were 53 games over .500 after Sunday’s games.
The Cardinals are 1-1 (at Busch Stadium) against Toronto, 0-3 against Tampa Bay, 1-2 against Boston and 1-2 against Baltimore.
“Strong teams in that division, for sure,” Marmol said. “Good pitching and they’ve got some teams that can really hit, as well.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Blue Jays hung up 28 runs in a game Friday in Boston.
Historically, the Cardinals, a playoff team nearly every year, are only 66-77 against the AL East. This year, the Blue Jays might have more of a home-field advantage than usual because most of the teams that have crossed the border to visit them have had to leave behind key players who weren’t vaccinated against COVID.
Toronto is 30-19 at home this year, and Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak noted that competitive balance can be affected by who can get into the country and who can’t.
“It is sort of interesting,” Mozeliak said. “Teams that have to go up there are not necessarily all going up at 100%. But the more we kind of dug (into) that, the more you realize your team is rarely at 100%.
“The more we thought about it, the more we thought it’s just part of a season. Obviously, if you play in the American League East, that might be a little more impactful because you’re having to go up there more often, whereas for us, it’s two games.
“I understand all games matter. But there was a night a couple of weeks ago we didn’t have our closer (Ryan Helsley) available. It’s kind of similar. You like to have your best available all the time. It just doesn’t happen. You look at somebody like Jack Flaherty, right? We were hopeful he would be making (many) more starts. Unfortunately, he’s not. You adjust, and you hope you can withstand those types of things.”
Austin Romine, the backup Cardinals catcher who isn’t on the trip either because of vaccination issues, played with the Yankees for parts or all of nine seasons. So he is quite familiar with the AL East.
“It’s about playing good teams, playing them well and trying to find out where you are,” Romine said. “We’re here to play the best and beat the best.”
After weekend games, Baltimore was the only team in the division under .500, and that was by only one game. It appears two of the division’s teams besides the Yankees — Toronto and Tampa Bay — will qualify for the playoffs as wild cards.
“I guess the record speaks for itself as being a very good division,” Romine said. “But baseball’s a beautiful thing. Anybody can win on any day.”
Pujols spent most of his past 10 seasons in the American League with the Angels, who would visit Toronto and the other AL East cities once a season.
He noted that the Cardinals could have won two or three of the interleague games with the AL East that they lost this season.
“But, yeah, it is a tough division,” he said. “You could say the same thing about the Central Division in the National League when we had the Cardinals, the (Chicago) Cubs and Houston. Even now, you’ve got Milwaukee and ourselves.
“But if you look over the last 20 years, the (American League) East is always tough.”
With Goldschmidt unavailable, Pujols is likely to get a start or two at first base. Utility man Brendan Donovan, who has been taking some extra work at the position lately in pregame drills, is the only other option what with Juan Yepez (forearm strain) hurt.
Lately, the 42-year-old has been the spry, young Pujols, taking extra bases against unsuspecting outfielders and honing his swing. In his past eight games, he is 10 for 29 (.345), raising his batting average from.198 to .226.
For 28 career games at Rogers Centre, he is a .310 batsman with an .877 OPS and six homers, although tough right-handers Jose Berrios and Kevin Gausman will be a test. Pujols is hitting just .151 against right-handers, as opposed to .339 against left-handers, but he has three homers against each.
“My legs definitely are 100% better than they were two or three years ago,” he said. “When I don’t have anything ‘achy,’ it’s a good time to push it and don’t take anything for granted.
“I’m swinging well. You look at my numbers and I’m hitting .200 or whatever but if you go by how many balls I’ve put in play at 100-some miles per hour off the bat, I could easily be hitting .250 or .260 and I would have a handful more of homers.”
Dickerson, who played 46 games with the Blue Jays last year and spent three years with Tampa Bay, has had the most at-bats of any Cardinal in Toronto, hitting .299 with an OPS of .840 for 34 games. He is likely to see time either in the outfield or as a designated hitter in these two games.
Wainwright, who will pitch Wednesday, will be making only his second start at Rogers Centre. His first, on June 24, 2010, resulted in a 5-0 loss when he allowed three homers in four innings. His catcher that day was Yadier Molina. The Blue Jays’ catcher was brother Jose Molina. Current Cardinals bench coach Skip Schumaker was the team’s designated hitter and Pujols played first base. Each had a single among five Cardinals singles that day.
Marmol has been tinkering with a lineup configuration that could have Pujols hitting fourth behind a top three of Tommy Edman, Dylan Carlson and O’Neill.
Goldschmidt had played two games in Toronto in his career, going two for six with a double. Arenado had played in three, going one for 11 with a double.
The Cardinals have played 260 games in the two seasons the pair has been together. There was not one game in the 260 in which both were out of the lineup.