There was that recent stretch when the Cards lost eight of 10 and saw their lead in the National League Central shrink to just two games over the Pirates. But that stretch now looks like nothing more than a slight detour on the road to the postseason.
The Bucs lost the last three games of a four-game series to the Cubs. And the Cardinals swept a three-game series from the Brewers, winning the finale, 6-3, on Thursday night. Thus the Cards now have a five-game lead with 16 left to play.
But the Cardinals, according to their manager, never really slumped when it came to the "process," the proper way for a St. Louis Cardinals team to prepare and play. If the Cards maintain the necessary focus, intensity, concentration, effort and urgency, if they stay the course, then the right results should follow because the process was correctly, precisely done.
So Mike Matheny was not particularly dismayed during the brief downturn, because the team's approach was still fine. That was an "honest evaluation" of what was occurring. Some starting pitchers had uncharacteristically rough starts, but there was nothing fundamentally wrong with "the process."
"I know that sounds crazy to people," Matheny says, "but I think it comes down to us being good evaluators, and secondly, consistent with how we define success.
"That is refreshing to these guys, I believe, because some of them have been on teams where it wasn't thought of the same way. We do things right, and it doesn't work out in the end, in wins and losses for us, we could still be successful.
"It's tough in a business like ours. This is a win-based business. That's our job description. We get that. But a great example would be, a guy goes up and hits four balls on the screws and he comes back with nothing. And then he does that for a few days. He's squaring up a couple balls [per day] and then all of a sudden he's 0-for-17 and everybody wants to know what's wrong with him. In reality, he's probably put the ball in play harder than maybe anybody else on the team. But the results weren't there.
"If he has a group of people around him who just focus on, 'Hey, we've got to fix this,' he's going to go backward instead of just staying the course. I think that's kind of a microcosm of the way the baseball season is."
The conventional way to measure a season is, of course, by victories and defeats. As far as the Cardinals' process, it must be fine, otherwise how could they have the best record in Major League Baseball? Matheny smiles slightly at this notion.
"I think the results just make the process appear better to the masses, maybe," he said. "I still believe there were times this year where we've actually gone through the process and the results weren't there. To everyone else it was catastrophic, but to us, it was a great time to remind everybody that the process is the focus and here's what's not happening, and some of those things are out of our control. Let's be honest evaluators. That's something we talk about a lot.
"I believe in the process. You have to have talent, you have to have a lot of different things mix in for the results to be there. Fortunately, we've had some of those things go in the right direction."
And the Cards, after their only bad patch of the season, are headed in the right direction again. Jason Heyward had a game-winning homer in the 10th inning of the series opener. Tommy Pham had two home runs, a triple and four RBIs in the second game. Pham had a triple, double and a single in the finale. A frightening moment came when a liner hit by Pham struck Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson in the right side of the head. Nelson was knocked down by the drive, but eventually walked off the field without assistance. Nelson later underwent a CT scan that showed only a contusion. He was hospitalized overnight for observation.
"Oh, that's good news," Pham said when he heard about the diagnosis of contusion. "That's good news, because I was expecting worse. I'm just glad he's all right."
In Milwaukee, where the Pirates have lost their last six games, the Cardinals got brilliant starting pitching from Carlos Martinez, an adequate start from Jaime Garcia, and on Thursday night, seven shutout innings from John Lackey.
"I think we've got the most wins in the big leagues; I don't think we were ever panicking," Lackey said. "It's always nice to play good baseball. We definitely had a stretch there where we weren't playing up to our capabilities. But this series was a group effort. We swung the bats, we had games that were good pitching-wise. I had some good double plays behind me tonight, so the defense was there. It was fun. It was good baseball."
The brief, recent slump was over. But the process had never slumped at all.