The Redbirds' numbers were rapidly dwindling. In recent days alone, outfielder/first baseman Brandon Moss had been put on the disabled list with a left ankle sprain. Backup catcher Brayan Pena went on the DL with knee inflammation. Third baseman Jhonny Peralta is day to day with inflammation in his surgically repaired right thumb. At the beginning of July, left-handed reliever Kevin Siegrist had been placed on the DL with mononucleosis.
Entering Wednesday night, the Cardinals had lost nine games in a row at home to teams with winning records. The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, had won six in a row, matching their best streak of the season. Not only that, they were calling up their No. 1 prospect, Tyler Glasnow, for a Thursday start in the series finale at Busch Stadium.
But then the one thing that couldn't happen did, in the third inning with the Cardinals trailing, 1-0. Second baseman Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals' only 2016 All-Star selection, suffered a right oblique injury on a 3-1 checked swing. Carpenter left the game immediately and was take for an MRI exam, the results of which the Cardinals learn about on Thursday. They fear a DL stint is looming.
The Cardinals did not roll over, however. They came back with a vengeance, for a while. Shortstop Aledmys Diaz homered to tie the game. The Redbirds then followed with a four-run fourth that included an RBI bunt-single by Carpenter's replacement, Kolten Wong, which finished with a head-first slide and required a replay challenge to become reality.
At this moment, the Cardinals were up, 5-1, and looking distinctly like they might be headed toward one of their most heartening victories of the season. It didn't go that way.
The Pirates got one run back in the fifth when Sean Rodriguez homered off St. Louis starter Jaime Garcia. In the sixth, Garcia did the two things a pitcher cannot do with a four-run lead. He walked the first two Pirates he faced. Both of those runners scored after Garcia departed.
"Very disappointing," Garcia said of the two walks. "I didn't get the job done."
"You get to the sixth inning and you've got a three-run lead, you lead off with two walks, the hook's going to come," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's just part of the game."
In the seventh, reliever Jonathan Broxton could not hold the fort and gave up three runs (two earned), allowing a walk, a single and a double. The third run, Jung Ho Kang, had reached third on his two-run double when center fielder Randal Grichuk's off-target throw, which could have been ruled an error, allowed the runner to advance. Kang then scored on a fielding error by Diaz.
The circumstances on Wednesday may have demonstrated that these Cardinals are unlucky. But it also demonstrated that there has been erosion in their level of play. In this game, the starting pitching wasn't quite good enough. The relief pitching wasn't quite good enough, either, and this had absolutely nothing to do with deposed closer Trevor Rosenthal.
Diaz has been a revelation at the plate, with a slash line of 319/.382/.534. But the shortstop has 15 errors. He leads the Majors in that unfortunate category. Grichuk is not back with the Cardinals because he climbed a mountain at Triple-A. He is back with the Cardinals because Moss is hurt.
Matheny, to his credit, refused to lean on the injuries as an excuse.
"I know that we have guys who can jump in and do it," he said. "The test is that we're just not playing the kind of baseball we want to play. And that's it.
"You never want to see guys go down. You never want to see it happen. You want to get them back as soon as you can. But somebody else has to step up. Right now, we're just fighting to get a good feel….We don't like the fact that we have guys going down. But somebody else has to pick it up."
The Cardinals of recent seasons epitomized success in the two most basic elements of the game. They had outstanding pitching. They were solid and more defensively. This season, they have slipped in both categories. Combined with ill luck, the different is evident.
Last season, when the Redbirds were 100-game winners, they had a majestic home record of 55-26. With Wednesday night's loss they are now 18-26 at home this season.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.