ST. LOUIS -- No longer is it necessary for the Cardinals to divide their attention between two races. There is only one viable path to the postseason remaining, and it's getting narrower by the day.
An opportunity to delay a Cubs clinch faded away early in an eventual 10-2 loss on Monday. So, too, did the Cardinals' hopes of making a late charge up the division standings. With a National League Central title no longer attainable, the Cardinals will now seek to chase down the Rockies and the Brewers for the second NL Wild Card berth.
"This team has shown me time and time again the kind of toughness and character they have," manager Mike Matheny said. "They just have to keep playing and not be distracted by the noise."
Matheny acknowledged finding himself in the delicate position of prioritizing urgency one day with setting the team up for success over the next several. That was evident in the third when, with the Cubs already ahead, 5-1, and starter Luke Weaver laboring, Matheny stuck with the rookie right-hander instead of turning to a ready reliever.
Weaver couldn't reward his manager's confidence. A two-out walk to Jason Heyward extended the inning and a three-run blast by Javier Baez took the wind out of the home crowd. Weaver retired Jon Lester for the final out of the inning and the last of his night.
"I just can't keep beating up my 'pen," Matheny said, when asked about the leash he gave Weaver. "He gave up the solo in the second, but besides that, looked sharper. Then things just kind of added on from there."
Indeed, the Cardinals' bullpen, even though it is overflowing with relievers due to a series of September callups, has been burdened heavily as of late. It had to cover 7 2/3 innings on Saturday and another five Sunday.
"Ideally, we talk about this all the time, we start with our starting staff," Matheny said. "As many relievers as we have, we still can't fire through five or six of them every single night. As much as we want to have an urgency to try and get back in the game, we also have the advantage of waiting a little bit so we could take advantage of the at-bat."
That came in the bottom half of the third, when Harrison Bader pinch-hit for Weaver, who was due up first.
In the end, the Cardinals still had to run through six relievers, though only one (Ryan Sherriff) covered more than an inning. Four of the pitchers who followed Weaver were, like him, rookies.
As for Weaver, the outing was in sharp contrast to the series of starts he had made since becoming a permanent member of the rotation. His string of seven straight victories was snapped, and the eight runs he allowed matched the total he had given up in all of those outings.
Weaver is due to pitch next on Friday, and is hopeful that start comes with a playoff berth still on the line.
"We've got our eyes forward, and we need to win some baseball games regardless of whatever is going on around us," Weaver said. "As long as we're winning and turn this around and get on a little streak, then those guys [the Rockies and Brewers] have to worry about the pressure that we're putting on them."