WASHINGTON • Well before shortstop Rafael Furcal received an escort to the visitors' dugout from his manager and trainer Thursday, the Cardinals committed to a course defined by veteran players with complicated medical histories. Now, with 29 games left on their schedule, their playoff chances will be influenced by their seconds.
Furcal's ulnar collateral ligament frayed in his 121st appearance, ending only the second season among the past five in which the three-time All-Star appeared in 100 games.
Furcal exits as right fielder Carlos Beltran tries to rediscover his offensive footing.
Staff innings monster, the dry-docked Chris Carpenter, hopes to become relevant to a stretch drive, two months after seeking career-extending surgery.
First baseman Lance Berkman was activated Saturday after a weeklong rehab assignment at Class AAA Memphis. The assignment followed the Puma's third stay on the disabled list and fifth knee surgery.
Berkman, 36, strongly hinted Aug. 23 that this season would be his last.
Third baseman David Freese reaches the end of the Cardinals' 10-game road trip seeking a semblance of the production he enjoyed in July. He enjoyed a taste Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park, where he drove a two-run homer and an opposite-field double in the first four innings.
Last month Freese reached his 100th appearance for the first time in a major-league season.
As good as the defending world champions looked on paper entering spring training, they were also trying to outrun recent history as well as the overdue rent that remained from last October's postseason rush.
The Cardinals arrived at the ballpark Saturday 9½ games out of first place but clinging to the National League's second wild by a half-game despite a four-game losing streak that saw them outscored 32-1. The negative run differential was the most severe for a four-game stretch since 1958. The Cardinals entered the game against the Nationals without a RBI in 39 innings and were waiting to see whether starting catcher Yadier Molina could start despite left shoulder soreness.
Furcal is diagnosed with a season-ending Grade 2 tear of his ulnar collateral ligament, a condition that may eventually require ligament replacement. Berkman returned from a minor-league rehab assignment virtually unable to play defense or run the bases. He is admittedly leaning toward retirement after this season. Furcal is believed to be on his final contract, which expires after next season.
Like Freese, productive Allen Craig is in uncharted territory as he nears 100 games in a major-league season.
The Cardinals continue to lead their league in average, runs and on-base percentage. They stood second in total bases before Saturday's offensive back-and-forth.
Yet a team that recently boasted the league's top three RBI men since May 1 has begun to experience an eroding offense. The Cardinals averaged 1.12 home runs and 4.95 runs in 86 games prior to the All-Star break. They began Saturday's game averaging 0.80 home runs and 4.5 runs in their past 46 games. Three teams had a better second-half on-base percentage, largely explaining the Cardinals' seventh-place tie in runs scored.
The trend became more pronounced in August, when the Cardinals slipped to 11th in on-base percentage (.314) while managing 19 home runs in 29 games.
Matheny handled daily questions during spring training about how he would apportion playing time between Beltran, Berkman and Craig, as if using three productive players among two positions could be a bad thing.
Berkman, however, has started only 21 games between three stays on the disabled list. He has taken 75 at-bats while Beltran, 36, and Craig entered Saturday's game with 802 at-bats total. Only left fielder Matt Holliday had played more games (129) than Beltran's 125. Matheny admitted following Friday's 10-0 loss that he wanted to rest his corner defenders but that rookie utility player Matt Carpenter's right ankle sprain complicated the task.
(Beltran, admittedly lost at the plate, sat on Saturday as Carpenter started at first base and Craig played in right. Beltran emerged to deliver a game-tying, eighth-inning RBI.)
Freese appeared in 93 games during the season's first four months. He reached his 100th game in August, a month in which he hit .213 with a .303 slugging percentage. Saturday began a clean slate that Freese appeared ready to exploit.
Club and player insist Beltran is hale despite recently needing a shot to alleviate hand discomfort.
Beltran was hitting .300 as recently as July 7. He ended August without a home run in his past 17 starts and a .211 average for the month. He received one off day in the month.
Just as Berkman's injuries have affected the down time afforded Craig and Beltran, a reluctance to use Tyler Greene as Furcal's backup caused the Cardinals' opening day leadoff hitter to play more than projected during spring training.
Left-handed starting pitcher Jaime Garcia is groping for consistency after more than two months on the disabled list.
Trailed by a litany of leg and knee issues that included November surgery, Craig appeared in his 91st game Saturday — the first time Craig has appeared in more than 75 games for the parent club within the same season.
Lance Lynn made the All-Star Game and for a while was tied for the league lead in wins. However, Lynn's performance ebbed as he neared 150 innings, leading to Lynn's shift from the rotation into an uncertain bullpen role.
The Cardinals spent much of February and March minimizing concerns about what increased exposure would mean for Furcal and, to a lesser degree, Beltran. Almost before a question could be asked about the aftereffects of 273 innings on Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner endured neck and shoulder discomfort that landed him on the disabled list and ultimately required risky July 19 surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome.
Lynn, a key figure within last season's bullpen makeover, shouldered much of the load created by Carpenter's absence. However, Lynn's command has eroded since the All-Star break, something experienced last season by converted reliever Kyle McClellan.
McClellan's issues ultimately were found to involve an injury that culminated in June shoulder surgery. No such problem has been attached to Lynn's recent struggles.
The Cardinals have 29 games left to secure one of two wild-card spots. They must out-kick at least two of three teams among the Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and the NL West runner-up. They must also confound age and medical history.