Struggles continue in fifth straight loss

Struggles continue in fifth straight loss

Struggles continue in fifth straight loss
NEW YORK -- When both the pitching and defense first began to sputter last month, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny could at least count upon his offense. Win or lose, the offense consistently produced.

That reliability disappeared somewhere between Atlanta and New York.

Since leaving Georgia on Wednesday, a Cardinals offense that still owns the league's top batting average has been held to one run. They were fortunate to get that tally, too, doing so off a pitcher making his Major League debut in a 6-1 loss to the Mets on Sunday in front of 23,559 at Citi Field.

A two-out, eighth-inning run off Mets reliever Elvin Ramirez ended the Cardinals' scoring drought at 26 full innings, the organization's longest such stretch since, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, not scoring in 33 consecutive innings from July 27-30, 1995.

"It's just one of those ruts," Matheny said. "The only way to get out of it is to work, so we're going to work our way through it."

The Cards will need to work through it rapidly if they hope to avoid sinking deeper. Sunday's loss, the team's fifth straight, put the club in all sorts of unchartered territory.

Not only is the current losing streak a season high, but St. Louis also finds itself clinging to a .500 record and having been leapfrogged in the division by the Pirates. Not counting Opening Day, the Cardinals hadn't been at .500 since April 20, 2011. They hadn't lost five in a row in nearly a year.

"As a team you're always going to go through stretches like this where you're not going to be able to score runs," said Carlos Beltran, who stranded six runners. "The first month of the season, we did a good job. The second month, we were there battling. Now, it seems like we're not getting on base. It's going to change."

This is a team that was shut out only twice in April and another two times in May. And yet, the club opened June without a run in the month's first 25 innings.

They may have avoided being shut out three straight days, but the Cardinals will take the field Monday still looking to rattle New York's rotation. Sunday's starter Jonathon Niese struck out a career-high 10 in six scoreless innings and threw only 26 of his 96 pitches for balls.

In the series, Mets starters have tossed 24 scoreless innings.

"I think that you have to give credit to their pitchers," outfielder Matt Holliday said. "Johan [Santana] is obviously an established pitcher and he pitched very well. [R.A.] Dickey is kind of a trick deal, and he's obviously 8-1 with a [2.69] ERA. We're not the only team that hasn't hit him. I've always thought that Niese is kind of an underrated."

Similar to Saturday, the Cardinals weren't short on run-scoring opportunities. They advanced a runner to third in three of the first four innings. In two of those instances, Beltran was retired to end the frame. Beltran later struck out with two aboard in the seventh.

The Cardinals finally touched home plate for the first time this series in the sixth, but David Freese's foot didn't get in before Andres Torres' throw from center. Catcher Josh Thole made the inning-ending tag on Freese, who was trying to score from second on a hit by Adron Chambers.

Freese made it home again in the eighth, and this time it counted. He scored from second, uncontested, on another single from Chambers. It was the team's first run since Wednesday.

"We've had a tough few days here, but it wasn't too long ago that we were stacking up 10 runs and a bunch of hits," Matheny said. "We ran into some pretty good pitching. We've ran into some at-bats that I'm sure guys would like to have back."

In all, St. Louis took 12 at-bats with a runner in scoring position. Only two of those ended with a hit, both from Chambers. The team stranded at least two baserunners in four frames.

Amid the offense's collective slump, the pitching hasn't helped keep games much within striking distance. The club has not led since Monday, and the Cardinals have only been tied for four of those 45 innings.

Starter Jake Westbrook allowed five of the Mets' runs in his five-plus inning outing. He opened his night with a 35-pitch first and allowed four straight batters to reach with one out, but was fortunate to get out of the inning trailing only 1-0. A mistake to Kirk Nieuwenhuis in the fourth resulted in a two-run homer.

"It is a blessing and a curse type of thing that it moves a lot," Westbrook said of his four-seam fastball, the pitch that Nieuwenhuis hit out. "It just came back over the plate."

Immediately after the home run, Matheny, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and head trainer Greg Hauck went to the mound to check on Westbrook. Matheny and Lilliquist thought they had seen something concerning in Westbrook's body language before and after that pitch.

The visit was brief. Westbrook assured them that, while irritated with himself, he was physically OK. The mound visit was also not related to the cut Westbrook has been pitching with on his middle finger since ripping it on the netting on the Dodger Stadium dugout two weeks ago.

"I guess I was super frustrated that I gave up the homer and put my hands on my knees," Westbrook said. "I'm perfectly fine."

"Something just didn't look right," Matheny said. "He was mad that we were out there. Jake is such a tough competitor that when someone comes out like that, it makes him look like he's giving an excuse for the home run. And that is the exact opposite of who that guy is."

New York scored three more times in the sixth with RBI hits from Nieuwenhuis and Torres. Westbrook has allowed 21 earned runs in his last 25 innings.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.