A 7-4 loss to the Reds on Wednesday night left the Cards in a tie for first place with Cincinnati, less than a week after they held a five-game advantage on the entire division. St. Louis finds itself in its deepest pre-clinch funk since 2003, having dropped five of the final six games of its just-finished homestand.
In each of the past two years, the Cardinals reached the 100-win mark and fielded few challenges after the season's opening weeks. In 2005, they took up permanent residence alone in first place on April 15. In 2004, no one had a share of the top spot after June 11.
In 2006, it may remain interesting for a little while longer. And the Cardinals have no one to blame but themselves. Facing a home series against a team trailing them by three games, the Cards dropped all three, and they hit the road in a tie rather than in command.
"It leaves a bad taste in everybody's mouth," said second baseman Aaron Miles. "Everybody knows we were three games up. But the season is long and it's three games."
Previously unbeaten Sidney Ponson was dinged for five runs on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings, and he walked a season-high five batters. He did strike out four, but his inability to contain the top half of the Cincinnati order cost him dearly.
Ponson had not allowed more than three earned runs in any other start this year, and on only two other occasions had he walked more than two batters.
"If you walk guys, you're not doing your job," he said. "That's what it comes down to. Throw the ball right down the middle and they hit home runs, you still lose the game. But I'm going to still try to hit the corners. Today I didn't hit the corners. I hit off the plate and the sweet spot of the bat."
Leadoff man Ryan Freel doubled twice and scored both times. Second-place hitter Felipe Lopez drew two walks, and twice came around to score. Scott Hatteberg, hitting in the three spot, reached base four times, scored twice and drove in two runs.
And then there was cleanup hitter Rich Aurilia, who had the game of his life. Aurilia amassed four hits and five RBIs, including a three-run shot off lefty reliever Tyler Johnson in the sixth that removed most of the doubt about the game's outcome.
Like Ponson, though, Johnson found himself frustrated by a free pass. After retiring Lopez for the second out of the inning, he faced lefty-swinging Hatteberg. The first baseman drew a walk to put two men on, and righty Aurilia took advantage of the situation with his sixth homer of the season.
"That disappointed me a lot," Johnson said. "I should have went after him and I didn't, and I let him get away.
"I never should have even faced Aurilia. I should have gone after [Hatteberg] and made outs. But it didn't happen that way."
After Eric Milton led a whitewashing of the Cardinals on Tuesday night, Aaron Harang threatened to do the same on Wednesday. Harang, who shut down the Cards at Busch in April, kept the home team off the board until the sixth, as his teammates built a seven-run lead. He surrendered five straight two-out hits for three runs in the sixth, but by that point Cincinnati was firmly in control.
"We got to him when we were seven down," Ponson said. "It's kind of hard to come back when you're seven down. You can pull that once in awhile during a season, but most of the time it doesn't work."
The defeat finished off the first sweep of the Cardinals at new Busch Stadium. The Cards have won nine of 11 series at the new ballpark. The Reds hadn't swept a series of three games or more in St. Louis since July 13-15, 1998.
"We didn't play very well and we ran into a hot team," said Jim Edmonds. "It's a different view playing first base, and that team looks like it's playing Wiffle ball right now."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.