St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras celebrates after throwing a runner out against the Atlanta Braves in the first inning at Busch Stadium on April 3, 2023, in St. Louis, Missouri. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images/TNS)

In the unpredictable game of baseball, small samples aren’t good examples.

But the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost 24 of their first 34 games, are showing some positive signs just as their fans, who comprise about half of downstate Illinois’ baseball clan, began to wonder whether the Redbirds would be worth watching on the warm, summer nights in July and August.

The “national pastime” offers central stage in that generally idle period when basketball is resting and football is tuning up.

The Redbirds are perennially in midst of the chase. And even if they have lacked the elite pitching to excel in the playoffs, they’ve kept it interesting through September by reaching the postseason 16 times since 2000, including each of the last four seasons.

Now what? Will this Cardinal team hold your attention?

Oh, the Rip Van Winkles will always be awakened by Cub invasions. But here’s a shocker: With two June games moved to London, the Cubs will make a single visit to St. Louis this entire season (four games in late July).

That’s part of a new two-league, round-robin schedule that pits the Cardinals vs. the Cubs just 13 times amid 46 interleague games. Oh, boy, can’t wait for those matchups with the Mariners and A’s and Guardians, not to mention the Blue Jays and Twins. Whose idea was this?

Missing MolinaWhat we’ve seen thus far was not anticipated. The Cardinals rocked the baseball world with a 17-game win streak late in 2021, and went 93-69 to capture the 2022 Central Division with virtually the same pitching staff that is now on the skids.

However, as Yadier Molina devotees are quick to emphasize, the pitchers may be similar but the catcher isn’t ... not when it comes to calling the pitches, snuffing the opposition’s running game, blocking curves in the dirt, and avoiding all these mind-boggling, two-strike disasters.

Catching woesSince 2000, with Mike Matheny turning over the catcher’s mitt to Molina in 2005, the Redbirds had impeccable leadership and prowess behind the plate.

Now, while Molina awaits his likely ascension into the Hall of Fame, it’s a different story.

And they’re discovering why the Cubs, who displayed an accurate view of the future by declining the huge contracts of their 2016 World Series core, allowed Willson Contreras to depart as well.

Just months after signing a five-year, $87.5 million contract, Contreras learned that, pardon the paraphrasing, “he won’t be catching until he learns the ‘Cardinal way’ of handling the staff.” He continue to earn his salary as a designated hitter.

Veteran catcher Andrew Knizner appeared adequate in the short term, while Contreras worked on the complex aspects of “running the team.” But the demotion to designated hitter only for Contreras lasted just a little more than a week.

Cardinals manager Oli Marmol told reporters on Saturday in Boston he expects Contreras to catch Jack Flaherty on Monday when the Cardinals return home to play the Brewers after spending the last six games working solely at designated hitter.

“We felt really good about the progress that we’ve made and it lines up really well for him to catch Monday,” Marmol said on Saturday.

Poor pitchingDoes this explain the Cardinal getaway? Hardly. Nolan Arenado is just now emerging from a month-long slump. Outfield and middle infield positions have been a mixture, with Tyler O’Neill hitting under .230 for the second straight year, and Brendan Donovan appearing almost everywhere except pitcher and catcher.

Meanwhile, hot prospects Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn await their turn in Memphis.

But the real problem is the pitching. Flaherty, the former ace, sports a 6.18 earned run average, newly signed Miles Mikolas has permitted 57 hits in 41 2/3 innings, and too much is being asked of 41-year-old Adam Wainwright in his final season.

Equally to blame is the bullpen, with Jordan Hicks trying to bring his ERA under 6.00.

They’re on the clockAnd behind it all, a new factor entered the picture at the wrong time for Contreras. First, let’s accept that pitchers have preferences as to their sequence of pitches. They would even shake off Molina at times. But the new 15-second pitch clock (20 seconds with men on base) doesn’t allow for much time to make changes.

Whether the calls were coming from the dugout or Contreras, there are rumblings that some Cardinal pitchers were unhappy about “going through” with pitch-call choices that they lacked time to change.

So, while baseball leaders have commented favorably on the reduced time of games, Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak was quoted: “The clock has changed the dynamics of the interaction... a strategy of how to communicate if they’re not on the same page.”

While Cub fans chuckle “I told you so” — actually, no one expected Contreras to catch 100 games — the Cardinals are caught with an expensive DH on their hands, and an unresolved situation behind the plate.

And Redbird fans are pondering what alternatives might draw their attention this summer if the team’s early trend isn’t reversed.

Pickleball, anyone?

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at