If the Cardinals curl up and fade away, you can circle this date on the calendar: Sunday, Aug. 19. The record will show there was no surrender on that day. It was more of a quiet submission, followed by a slow retreat to the home clubhouse.
Perhaps the Cardinals will rise to rally again. I know what they did last summer. Their 2011 late-season comeback occupies a special place in franchise history. It's pressed in a book, and burnished with gold.
If the Cardinals fail to generate another lightning strike, we'll view this somber Sunday as the flash point of their demise. Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium, with the stands gradually emptying over 19 monotonous and frustrating innings, the Cardinals suffered a death by a thousand pitches.
In an unimaginable scenario the Cardinals took 6 hours and 7 minutes to go down in a slow-motion crash, losing 6-3 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. As the sun moved behind the rim of the stadium, casting ominous shadows on the field, the Cardinals flickered and fell.
"I don't know how it could be any more disappointing," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "I don't know how else to say it."
The Cardinals lost the day. They lost the weekend series, winning only one of three games. They lost ground in the standings and trail the Pirates by two games in the NL Central and NL wild-card standings. And the Cardinals may have lost their way. After a recent 13-4 stretch, St. Louis is 5-7 in its last 12 games.
This time the Cardinals were exposed by the Pirates. The young and ravenous contenders refused to be denied in the quest to outlast the tired, malfunctioning old champion. The Pirates had more energy and extra willpower. They had a bit more offensive kick. They had a bullpen that kept the gate closed, except for the small opening that the Cardinals crawled through for one run in the 17th inning Sunday.
In a 2012 season that's been marked by bitter losses, the Cardinals reached a preposterous and maddening low. After grabbing a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, the Cardinals powered down and scored only one run over the final 15 innings. The Pirates' bullpen worked them over for 12 innings, allowing just that one run.
A procession of St. Louis pitchers led by starter Jaime Garcia struck out 19 Pirates and did all they could to save the day. But Cardinals hitters couldn't latch onto the rescue line. It was the same sad story. These familiar Sunday scenes became part of the endless loop of horrible at-bats, missed opportunities and self-destructive habits.
If you look at the National League leaders in the most important offensive categories, the Cardinals are at the top or near it. Well, I don't care what the NL rankings claim; they're lying. This offense is fraudulent. It can bully teams for a one-night torrent of runs, only to disappear in most close games.
The Pirates came to Busch with a battered pitching staff that's been taking stitches all month. Before play began Friday, the Pirates were ranked 12th in the 16-team NL in road ERA, giving up an average of 4.56 earned runs when away from Pittsburgh.
The Pirates set up their rotation to have James McDonald, Erik Bedard and Jeff Karstens start the games at Busch Stadium. The three pitchers brought a combined 6.47 road ERA to their assignments in St. Louis.
Bedard wasn't good on Saturday, but the Cardinals were muffled by McDonald and Karstens. The Pirates' bullpen was sensational, giving up only two earned runs in 18 1/3 innings. The scorecard: in 36 innings of at-bats against Pittsburgh pitching, the Cardinals scored nine runs and batted .200. That's why the Pirates were able to win two of the three games despite scoring 12 runs in 36 innings.
Sunday, we saw a first for the franchise: Matt Holliday, who bats third, went 0 for seven. And David Freese, who bats fifth, went 0 for eight. Until now, the Cardinals never had a hitter go 0 for eight and another go 0 for seven in the same game.
And the Cardinals didn't hit a home run in the series. They haven't homered since the fifth inning of last Wednesday's victory over Arizona. That's a streak of 173 at-bats without a homer.
The con is up. The Cardinals bring the thunder enough to be misleading. But those eruptions for eight, 10 or 12 runs are false advertising. They are movie-trailer games, featuring alluring highlights of home runs and heroics make the production look a lot better than it really is.
This is what the Cardinals are: a 45-45 team since May 11. And the Cardinals have scored three runs or fewer in 41 of the 90 games. This bogus offense gave us a new level of absurdity Sunday.
After Carlos Beltran doubled to put the team up 2-0 in the fourth, the Cardinals had three hits in their next 30 at-bats. That took them through the 12th inning. And it didn't get much better than that.
And this, in part, is what the manager had to offer after the silent Sunday:
"The guys played hard," Matheny said. "They did. They fought. I'm proud of how they went about it. I'd really like to have walked out of there with a win, but I liked the way they played the game."
Sorry, Mike. But that's nonsense.
That rah-rah stuff may resonate with the high school baseball team at Westminster Christian Academy, but this is major-league baseball.
They don't give trophies for trying in major-league baseball. They give the players millions of dollars for trying. That's what they are paid to do: try hard. Given that the Cardinals aren't far behind in the wild card race, you'd hope the players would give an effort. That isn't good enough. Not even close.
Matheny is managing an underachiever. Now 121 games into the season, it's clear that the Cardinals lack a sharp competitive edge. That's among the prime reasons they come up short in so many close games.
Maybe the manager needs to get mad and push harder instead of applauding his players' effort after a squad loaded with All-Stars scored only three runs in 19 innings.
"Tough one to swallow," Matheny said, talking about Sunday's loss. And if Matheny can't get this lagging team going, he'll have to swallow the failure of an entire season.