Cards can't right ship in loss to Reds

Cards can't right ship in loss to Reds

CINCINNATI -- The Cardinals put a merciful end to their worst road trip in 35 years with a disheartening 5-4 loss to the Reds on Thursday. Their status as a contender may soon be similarly terminated.

St. Louis lost its seventh straight game, falling 4 1/2 games out of first place with 18 games remaining in the season. A looming series with the Cubs, once billed as a showdown, now simply represents a chance at survival. The Cardinals must win in bunches if they hope to win a fourth straight National League Central championship.

The Cardinals' 0-7 road trip is their longest winless trip since a seven-game visit to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in May of 1972. Those teams, however, featured Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, and Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. This trip matched St. Louis up with some good teams, but few Hall of Fame-caliber sluggers.

"We just didn't put it together as a group," said center fielder Jim Edmonds. "We played OK in Arizona, but we still didn't play well enough to win, even though we had chances to win every game. The bottom line is, you've got to win."

If there is one piece of good news, it is that the Cards play their next 11 games at home. The Redbirds are a completely different team at Busch Stadium, where their piecemeal pitching staff seems to get away with more mistakes than in the less forgiving ballparks elsewhere in the NL. St. Louis has lost 17 of its past 22 road games, while winning 17 of 23 at home in recent weeks.

The Redbirds are virtually the same offensive team at home, where they've scored 4.6 runs per game, as on the road, where they've scored 4.4 per tilt. But their pitching staff, and especially their starting rotation, has fallen apart away from home. The seven pitchers with at least five starts have a 4.39 ERA when they start at Busch Stadium, and a 5.93 ERA when they start on the road.

"There isn't any reason why they can't be just as effective on the road," said manager Tony La Russa, yet neither the pitchers nor the coaching staff have found a way to make that happen.

St. Louis finished the trip in appropriate fashion, with Kip Wells knocked out of the game in the fifth inning. Wells was just the latest Redbirds starter to stumble. Like Anthony Reyes the night before, he held it together until one big inning sunk him. Wells took a 1-1 tie into the fifth, when Joey Votto hit a two-run double and David Ross crushed a two-run homer to give the Reds a 5-1 lead.

"I got too much of the plate with Votto, and then left a fastball up to Ross that he clubbed," Wells said. "When you pitch out of jams and throw a lot of pitches, everybody's thinking, 'Whew, you managed to avoid trouble.' And then when it catches up to you in the end, then you spin it that the whole thing was damage control. At times as a starter, that's the way it is."

Over the past 11 games, during which the Cardinals are 2-9, their starters have allowed 45 earned runs in 41 1/3 innings, for a 9.80 ERA. They're averaging just over 3 2/3 innings per start in that time and have been removed mid-inning in seven of the 11 games. No Cardinals starter has finished the fifth inning since Adam Wainwright went six on Sept. 7.

In each of the past six games, the Cardinals starter has allowed at least one home run, and opposing batters are hitting .418 against the St. Louis rotation in the past 11 games.

"It's been very frustrating, is what it's been," said pitching coach Dave Duncan. "You see some good, but it seems like that bad keeps jumping up and biting us."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.