The Redbirds' 45-36 record, still second best in the National League, nonetheless, carries as many questions as answers even at this late date. It's unclear whether they should receive extra credit for making the most of an injury-decimated roster, and thus potentially becoming a force when everyone is healthy. Or, on the flip side, whether they're hanging on by the slimmest margin, taking on water as fast as they can bail.
It's ultimately a question of perception. In March, a 45-36 halfway record would have looked great. But after the Cardinals reached 13 games over .500 twice, plus-nine has a little less luster.
"I look at nine, when we were 13," manager Tony La Russa said. "We've got to reverse this, get a win tomorrow and have a chance to win the series."
Friday night's defeat certainly presented evidence for the cracks-in-the-foundation side of the argument. An offense that has sputtered for much of June was held down once again. A starter who has pitched better than his record turned in his rockiest showing in nearly two months, while taking one for the team. And a bullpen that has been sorely overtaxed simply wasn't called upon until it could no longer be avoided.
And yet ... take away one hit from Kansas City and give one hit to St. Louis, and it's a drastically different game. Alex Gordon's three-run double with two outs in the second inning was a game-changer, giving the Royals a 4-0 lead. Meanwhile Troy Glaus, who laced three hits later in the evening, popped up with runners on second and third to end the first inning.
Gordon, whose double was part of a four-run Kansas City second inning, then added a solo homer in the fifth. That was enough against Joel Pineiro, who was reached for a good bit of hard contact, but avoided serious trouble in most innings. Pineiro earned plaudits for leaving only one out to the Cardinals' stretched-to-the-limit bullpen.
"He got deep in the game, but he made a couple mistakes," La Russa said. "Two of them to the third baseman [equaled] four runs. You compliment him for staying after it and almost completing the game, but those early mistakes gave them a lot of momentum."
Pineiro is winless in eight straight starts, despite pitching well enough to get a "W" on several occasions. He's gone seven or more innings in three consecutive games, but hasn't won since April 29.
"You can't go out there and expect the guys to get 10 runs every time," Pineiro said. "They're out there battling the same way I'm battling on the mound. So you've just got to keep on pitching, and hopefully good things will happen for us."
Glaus stroked a solo homer in the seventh inning, but it was otherwise a quiet night for the Cardinals' offense. Royals starter Gil Meche worked around some early danger to take control of the game in the middle innings. St. Louis has averaged under four runs per game over the past 14 games.
The Cards lost their third straight game to remain 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Cubs in the National League Central, but they still lead the Brewers by a game for the NL Wild Card. St. Louis must win the final two games of its series in Kansas City to avoid having its second losing road trip of the season.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.