JUPITER, Fla. -- Aware that this year's extended spring training calendar could drag on and on and on, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and his staff sought a way to make sure several points of emphasis weren't ?lost in the drone of drills.
They made games out the smallest moments that win games.
"Every drill we work on with the catchers, for example, when we're blocking balls it's who is the best?" Matheny explained. "Popups -- who is the last guy to drop one? We had the bunt competition. I think for people who compete for a living, when you throw them into a challenge it brings the best out in them. And it breaks up the monotony."
Twice this spring Matheny gathered the entire roster to watch the final rounds of a camp-wide bunting championship. Less publicized, but perhaps more compelling when it came to last year's production was the situational-hitting contest coach John Mabry and Matheny organized. A team of Yadier Molina, Daniel Descalso and Carlos Beltran was crowned camp champs, but this was less about frivolity and more about priority.
An offense that finished as one of the stoutest in the National League also was frustrated in 2012 by fluctuating production. Good for 10 one night, but undone by scoring none the next, the Cardinals see improving their situational hitting as a way to inoculate against inconsistency.
"You start looking at all the one-run games that we lost, and what's the differentiator?" Matheny said. "It's the little things, those things that I know drive people nuts. It's getting the bunt down. It's making the defensive play. It comes back to pitching, too. But getting the guy over and getting him (home) can make a difference in those games. Go back and look at how many times those haunt you in those close games.
"The team that executes is the team that wins."
Tuesday was the first of three off days this spring for the Cardinals. Matheny locked the door to the clubhouse as a sign he wanted the players to stay away from the ballpark. David Freese, who landed on his tailbone while trying to catch a foul popup Monday, was the only major-leaguer seen who came by for treatment on a soreness he does not expect to linger. Shortstop Rafael Furcal will travel to meet with Dr. James Andrews today for an evaluation on the ligament damage and bone spur in his right elbow that has kept him off the field and put his availability in doubt.
Furcal's absence answers one of the few questions the Cardinals carried into camp about the lineup. Jon Jay is all but a fixture at leadoff with Furcal ailing, and that means the top seven spots in the Cardinals' lineup will be manned by seven of the eight players with the most at-bats for the Cardinals in 2012. The band is back together.
Overall, the 2012 Cardinals scored 765 runs, the second most in the National League, and for the second consecutive year led the league in on-base percentage, at .338. ESPN.com this week removed pitchers from the equation and calculated that the Cardinals' position players' .278 average and .348 on-base percentage topped the majors. While the end results were robust, the means often were maddening.
The Cardinals were shut out 13 times total in 2012, including twice in the final two games of the NL championship series. Division-champ Cincinnati had four shutouts. Yet, while the Reds scored eight runs or more only 17 times, the Cardinals had eight runs or more in 30 games. The Cardinals' 31 wins by five runs or more were the most of baseball's 10 playoff teams. But their 21-26 record in one-run games was the only losing record among the five NL playoff teams. The Reds, who finished nine games ahead of the Cardinals, were 31-21 in one-run games.
"We've got to find better ways to be more consistent," Jay said. "That's been our main goal. We were a good offense last year, but we want to be a better offense. Let's not have those games where we score 10 and then we score none. On those days when the pitching is tough, we have to take our walks and try to create a run in different ways. We can get better there."
Toward the end of the 2012 season, Matheny said he planned to explore the riddle of variable offense and the one-run losses. The reasons were myriad. Some of it had to do with the opponent. As Mabry said, "Some pitchers are paid lots of money to get guys out like that." Matt Holliday suggested the binges and blanks were just part of baseball, the natural ebb and flow of a season. Slumps happen. The Cardinals have similar hitters stacked in the middle of the order -- they can hit four or five righthanded hitters consecutively -- and that may contribute. Over the course of several seasons, one-run losses tend to even out.
On the micro level, however, Matheny saw flashes of failed execution when it came to situational hitting. Those cost a club that couldn't bludgeon opponents every night.
"In that situation, we want to be prepared," Mabry said. "If you have to win a game 2-1, that's when situational hitting comes in."
That's the game.
Former manager Tony La Russa used to call them "keys," and he would tells the players that of the 500 or so at-bats they would get each season a handful belonged to the team. During those at-bats, the hitter had to get a runner into scoring position (a groundball would do it) or get a runner home from third (a flyball would do it). This spring, the Cardinals assigned points to such situations and awarded them when players would execute. The Cardinals opened batting practice early in spring with situational hitting, took situational hitting off the curveball machine, had different drills with an infield playing in, and also had the situational-hitting tournament.
Molina, Descalso and Beltran -- three of the favorites entering the challenge -- won their individual groups and then scored the most points as a group.
Matheny said they're taking the game into live at-bats, rewarding points for "quality at-bats" as well as when a player moves a runner from second to third base with less than two outs. They're points with a purpose because the Cardinals believe practice now will create runs later. Even with one of the league's best lineups?, it never hurts to find another way to score.
"If you said to me that our team would be in the top five of every category would you take it? Everybody would say, 'Yes,'" Mabry said. "The thing is you can't say when those runs are going to come and when they're not. Tell me right now that we're going to be top five in those categories at the end of the season, and I'll take it -- regardless of how we get there."
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