Brad Penny's worst start as a Cardinal doomed St. Louis to a 7-2 loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park on Sunday. With the defeat, St. Louis fell out of first place for the first time since July 30, 2009. The Reds pulled one-half game ahead of the Redbirds by winning two out of three games in the weekend series.
Cardinals starters have allowed four or more runs in five of the past six games, and have lost each time that has happened. Over the previous 18 games, no Redbirds starter allowed more than three runs.
"Give them credit," said manager Tony La Russa. "Their hitters were on, their pitcher was on, they just beat us. ... we just got beat. They had better at-bats and they pitched better."
The riverside ballpark in Cincinnati hummed with excitement all weekend, but the Cards' play mostly did not match the atmosphere. That was especially true on Sunday, when Penny scuffled and St. Louis went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals hit into costly double plays in the first and second innings, and managed only one run from a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the fifth.
The offensive woes magnified Penny's difficult day.
The right-hander struggled from the start, allowing a leadoff double to Orlando Cabrera and a two-out, two-run homer to Scott Rolen in the first. He was reached for four hits in a two-run third inning, and four more in a three-run fifth. He struck out seven against one walk, but gave up a hefty total of 13 base hits in five innings. Penny needed 109 pitches to get 15 outs after ranking among the National League's most efficient pitchers through the season's first six weeks.
"I felt good, I just made too many mistakes," Penny said. "And mixed with the bad luck, it wasn't good. I've got to do a better job of keeping my team in the game. A couple hits that were just placed perfect, on top of the bad pitches I made. They just took advantage of everything."
Meanwhile, Bronson Arroyo became the latest pitcher to handcuff what should be a high-octane Cards offense. Arroyo allowed an RBI groundout to Tyler Greene in the fifth and a solo homer to Jason LaRue in the seventh, but short-circuited potential rallies with the two double-play balls. He also added a two-run single.
"I think it's been like that all year long," said Albert Pujols. "We haven't taken advantage the way that we want to. Why? I don't know. I can't put a finger where, but that's the way it goes."
The Cardinals have relied on their rotation extremely heavily this season. When the starter pitches well enough to win, the team typically wins: St. Louis is 17-8 when the starter allows three runs or fewer, and 14-5 when it's under three runs. But when the starter struggles, it's curtains for the Redbirds. They're 4-9 in games in which the starter allows more than two, and 1-6 when it's more than three.
The offense simply hasn't hit enough to bail out a pitcher on even a so-so day, never mind a truly rough day like the one Penny endured on Sunday.
"There's going to be some point in a season where that happens," Penny said. "I can't remember not having that happen. I think it's a part of the game. If you look at most of the Major League teams throughout the league, there are going to be a couple months where that happens to every team. ... Who knows? This game is weird. It could go on all year or it could change tomorrow."
The Cardinals expressed little concern over falling out of first place, instead acknowledging only frustration at losing a series. On the Reds side, though, it was clear the change meant quite a bit.
"Those guys have been in the playoffs so many years," Arroyo said. "They're not panicking over there. It's not a big deal to them. It's definitely a bigger deal on this side. We have to keep on the task at hand, which is try to win two out of three from everybody. Those guys don't play bad baseball that often. You could go on a road trip, slip a little bit and turn around, they could be four [games] ahead of you."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.