Cards' starting pitching needs to right ship

With Wild Card spot in sight, St. Louis looking for more out of rotation

Cards' starting pitching needs to right ship

CINCINNATI -- Despite a flat finish to a road trip that opened with four wins in five games, the Cardinals return home having positioned themselves firmly in the National League Wild Card mix. They sit even with the Marlins for the second spot with 54 games ahead.

But in order to seal their sixth straight postseason berth, the Cards will need better from a rotation that has collectively faltered as of late. Mike Leake's five-plus-inning start in Thursday's 7-0 loss to the Reds represented the fifth time in six games that a St. Louis starter has been unable to record an out in the sixth. Leake had four chances to on Thursday, but all four of those hitters eventually came around to score.

"If you look at numbers, obviously you're not going to be pleased," said Leake, who has allowed 19 earned runs in his past three starts. "But with the way I'm throwing the ball and the way I feel like I'm progressing with my mechanics, I am getting better. I just try to get better every time I'm out there, and if it's giving up seven runs, it's giving up seven runs."

Leake isn't alone in his laboring, though. A Cardinals rotation that ranked eighth in the Majors with a 3.97 first-half ERA has posted a 5.55 mark since the All-Star break. Three clubs -- the Braves, D-backs and A's -- have a worse mark.

Beginning with an ineffective 1 1/3-inning spot start by Mike Mayers on July 24, the Cardinals have been unable to pull more than five innings out of their starting pitcher in eight of 11 games. The club is 5-6 during that stretch.

"It all starts with our starting pitching," manager Mike Matheny said. "We've been clear about that from the beginning. We know that this starting staff can go on a long run, too, for the rest of the year and into the postseason. We just need to get on a good roll."

Asked if he could pinpoint factors behind the collective dip in effectiveness, Matheny pointed to the calendar.

"It's August," he said. "You're going to have stuff -- whether it's elements, rain, doubleheaders, makeup games. It seems like this time of year, when they talk about it being the dog days, this is a good test. You're going to have some struggles."

The Cards' rotation has been tested by plenty of extenuating circumstances. The club went without a scheduled day off over the first 17 days after the All-Star break. During that stretch, it endured two rainouts, two doubleheaders and one 16-inning game and had to call upon one starter (Jaime Garcia) to make his first career start on short rest.

The frequency of short starts is one of the reasons the Cardinals continue to carry an extra reliever.

"You're going to have that," Leake said, downplaying the rotation's recent struggles. "If you have every guy dominating every start, you have five aces. Our job is to give our team a chance to win, whether it's a quality start or it's keeping your team in the game."

In 20 games since the All-Star break, the Cardinals have received six quality starts. They won all six of those games.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.