On the bright side, it was a lovely day in downtown St. Louis as the Cardinals fell to the Cubs, 8-5, on Saturday afternoon.
Mark Mulder came out blazing, but fell apart after a pair of fourth-inning errors and was ultimately charged with eight runs for the second consecutive game. Due to a depleted Cardinals bullpen following Friday night's 14-inning game, Mulder was kept in for 6 2/3 innings, taking one for the team despite clearly not being sharp.
To cap it off, Albert Pujols, the reigning MVP and the Major League home run leader, was removed in the fourth inning with a strained right oblique muscle. The Cards were already playing with two players who were on the active roster, but unavailable, so they will almost certainly need to make some sort of move -- at least one -- before Sunday's series finale.
Mulder fared so well in the first three innings, and the game got away from him so quickly, it was almost as though a different pitcher took the mound at the start of the fourth inning. Once trouble started to hit, Mulder could not contain it. The eruption was reminiscent of six days earlier in San Diego, when Mulder and Brad Thompson were battered in an eight-run inning.
"It's surprising to see it, but that's what's happening," said manager Tony La Russa. "I don't know whether he's overthrowing, underthrowing, I just don't know for sure. Figuring out how to fix it is how you get the real gold. He's saying he's in the middle of the plate too often. Anybody watching the game can say that."
Mulder retired the game's first six batters in order, all on ground-ball outs. A leadoff double in the third was squelched with a fielder's choice grounder, an out on a sacrifice bunt and a comebacker, and through three innings, Mulder still didn't have an out in the air. Entering the fourth, he even had a one-run lead, thanks to David Eckstein's RBI single.
Mulder, and his defense, couldn't make it stand up. Neifi Perez reached on a throwing error by Eckstein, Michael Barrett singled, and Phil Nevin's potential double-play ball was instead an error by Scott Rolen. Bases loaded, no outs.
Rather than stopping the bleeding, Mulder allowed matters to rage out of hand quickly. He fell behind in the count, 2-0, to the dangerous Aramis Ramirez, and Ramirez pounced with his sixth career grand slam, a shot that just kept carrying to right-center. Three more hits, and another error, made the Cubs' lead 5-1 before Mulder finally took control of the inning. The fifth started with a walk to Barrett and a mammoth Nevin homer to straightaway center, and Chicago led by six.
"I left too many pitches up over the plate," Mulder said. "You get the bases loaded in that situation and I've got to do a better job with that. I've got to get a ground ball, keep the ball down and not try to do too much. It's one of those [things], you're telling yourself over and over not to do too much, and you get right there to throw the ball and you do it anyway. And the ball just stayed up and he hit it the other way."
Mulder has lost three straight starts, consistently showing the same problem -- an inability to practice effective damage control.
"Pitching around, whether it's a bad break on a blooper or you disagree with an umpire, or a defensive play that isn't made, that's part of competing and winning," said La Russa.
The standings in the NL Central might look quite a bit different if the two old rivals had played more often. St. Louis is 2-6 against Chicago this year, 32-15 against the rest of baseball. Putting aside their 6-2 record against the Cardinals, the Cubs are 16-30. Fifth-place Chicago trails first-place St. Louis by 11 1/2 games in the division.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.