Despite an admirable but not quite sufficient effort from Braden Looper, the Cardinals lost for the sixth time in nine July games on Thursday, falling to the Phillies, 4-1, at Citizens Bank Park. Over three games at one of baseball's most hitter-friendly ballparks, the Cardinals held a menacing lineup to eight runs -- and still lost two out of three.
The Cardinals' offense is sputtering, and it has been for nearly a month now. The Redbirds have tallied 13 runs over their past seven games, all of them against legitimate playoff contenders. Going back further, they've been held to two or fewer runs in 13 of their past 26 games -- fully half of their contests over a span of just under a month.
"We had some good at-bats and we had some that weren't really that good," manager Tony La Russa said. "I thought we took an awful lot of strikes today. We could have been more aggressive. You take strikes and then you're in a position where you're either defending to put the ball in play or chasing ones that aren't as good. I didn't think we did a very good job of being aggressive with hittable pitches."
Since July began, the Cardinals are batting .235 as a team, with a gruesome .294 on-base percentage and a .389 slugging percentage. They're still flashing some power, averaging more than a home run per game, but they're walking less often, striking out more often and generally producing less than they were earlier in the year.
And so even in a series where they pitched exceptionally well, the Redbirds could manage only one victory.
"We hit a couple of balls hard, but we should have done a better job the last couple of days than we have," said Albert Pujols.
The slugger singled twice in four at-bats. But in those four trips to the plate, he had a total of one runner on base in front of him.
"We just haven't put a streak together with a bunch of base hits in one inning," Pujols said. "We've got a hit here and there, a couple of hits, but we haven't gotten the big hit we need."
Looper, meanwhile, was punished by two big hits -- both off the bat of burgeoning Cardinals killer Ryan Howard. Looper permitted a two-run homer to Howard in the first inning and a solo shot in the sixth, sandwiched around a Chase Utley RBI double in the third. In four plate appearances against Looper, Howard has three home runs.
"I made a bad pitch the first inning," Looper said. "It was 3-2, I was trying to go down and away, and I pulled it and it was down and in. He just stayed through it. He's got tremendous power.
"The second one was a changeup on the black a little above the knee that he just popped up to left field that carried out of this ballpark. It's probably a can of corn at our place. But you've got to get that ground ball there rather than letting him put the ball in the air."
Howard presents a curious problem for pitchers. A .234 hitter even after a monstrous series against the Cardinals, Howard is a hitter who pitchers know they can get out if they make good pitches. But as a spectacular power source, he can punish any pitcher who makes a mistake. So you can be aggressive and try to make your pitch -- but if you miss, look out.
Twice, Looper missed. And with a struggling offense unable to pick him up, that meant a loss. The Phillies totaled eight runs in three games, but won two of them.
"That's not a lot of runs for this park," said Pujols, before adding, "Obviously it was enough to lose the series."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.