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Lopez pitches against Mets
April 17: Position player Felipe Lopez was forced to pitch as the Cardinals ran through their bullpen during a 20 inning game against the New York Mets at Busch Stadium. (Laurie Skrivan | lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

 

Ten games that meant the season for the Cardinals, who were eliminated from the NL Central race Tuesday:

New York Mets 2, Cardinals 1 (20 innings)

April 17. Busch Stadium

Jaime Garcia's five hitless innings opposite Cy Young Award-winner Johan Santana were an afterthought in the 18th inning when both teams remained scoreless and thinning rosters hinted at hi-jinks ahead. A sacrifice fly to Kyle Lohse, forced into action as a left fielder, and a two-out RBI single from Yadier Molina created a 1-1 tie through 19 innings. In the 20th, the winning run scored off Joe Mather, who pitched two innings in the game and became the first Cardinal position player to get a decision in 22 years.

One double switch in the 11th resonated through the remainder of the game. Manager Tony La Russa lifted Matt Holliday and planted the pitcher in the cleanup, smack behind Albert Pujols. The three-time MVP was intentionally walked the rest of the game, and twice he was walked to load the bases. Each time, the pitcher batted to avoid squandering an inning on the mound and each time the pitcher struck out. And the game grinded on. "It's real obvious," La Russa said, "if you double-switch Holliday out of the game, unless you have a really deep bench, you've got a problem."

Cardinals 9, Los Angeles Angels 5

May 21. Busch Stadium

Here was a victory that proved to be a much bigger loss. In the third inning of a tie game, Cardinals starter Brad Penny thumped former Cardinal Joel Pineiro with a grand slam that proved the winner in this interleague tussle. It also proved to be the last thing Penny ever did for the Cardinals. The righthander did not throw another pitch in the game and didn't appear again this season. He admitted later that he started that game with a minor ache in his side, one that became a full-blown strain - pulling muscle from the ribs - as he tried to push it.

The Cardinals season-long scramble for starting depth began that night and continued all the way to the trade deadline, when Jake Westbrook was a needed addition, no matter the cost. "When a guy like Brad goes down," reliever Mitchell Boggs said after the victory, "it's like a punch in the gut." The next day, Kyle Lohse pitched for the last time before forearm surgery. Worse than a punch to gut, the Cardinals were suddenly down two arms from their strength.

 

San Diego 1, Cardinals 0

May 25, Petco Park

What first appeared as a compelling pitching duel, later looked like a harbinger. Cardinals' starter Adam Wainwright continued mounting his season-long Cy Young Award campaign by tying a career high with 12 strikeouts and holding the Padres to one run on four hits in seven innings. The one run came on Jerry Hairston Jr.'s homer on a curveball in the second inning. Wainwright maintained this quality for months to come; so too did the offense behind him.

Against Padres' starter Jon Garland, the Cardinals left the bases loaded in the first inning, squandered two two-out hits in the second and killed two rallies with double plays. The Cardinals put the leadoff hitter on in three of the first four innings and then failed to execute. In the first, Garland walked Matt Holliday to load the bases with one out. David Freese and Colby Rasmus then each struck out to waste the opportunity. "Garland put up zeroes," Wainwright said. "That's the only way to guarantee yourself you're not going to lose." He had no idea.

 

Colorado 12, Cardinals 9

July 6. Coors Field

Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin entered the game in the ninth inning of a non-save situation and promptly saw one of the worst losses in club history implode around him. Boosted by Matt Holliday's three-run homer and starter Blake Hawksworth's resolute five innings, the Cardinals had a six-run lead going into the ninth inning. For the third time in club history, they blew it. For the first time in more than 100 years of Cardinal baseball, the lost that lead and lost the game on a walk-off homer.

Franklin allowed two three-run homers in the ninth, and the Rockies scored a franchise-record nine runs in the ninth. Seth Smith's three-run shot with two outs gave the Rockies the win and set them up for a series sweep. This debacle was bookended by an error-laced loss to Milwaukee three days earlier and the next day's walk-off loss to the Rockies when lefty Evan MacLane was forced into his major-league debut in a tie game.

But the Cardinals first loss in 38 games with a lead after seven innings stands above all others for Tony La Russa's post-game admonitions alone. "There's no way to explain it, no excuse you make," the manager said. "It's just a really difficult loss. It's just brutal."

 

Houston 9, Cardinals 4

Aug. 2. Busch Stadium

Jake Westbrook's debut came three days after the Cardinals acquired him at the non-waiver trade deadline. He was everything advertised, and more. Westbrook worked swiftly through six strong innings. He struck out seven batters, tying a season high, and he left the game with the Cardinals leading, 4-2. The bullpen took care of that.

Houston, its roster picked apart by trades, scored seven runs in the final two innings, including two off Jason Motte and three off Trever Miller. It was revealed later that Motte sought heating treatment during his appearance for stiffness in his right shoulder, and his troubles showed as he came out for a second inning. Motte walked the first two batters he faced in the eighth. Both scored to tie the game, and the comeback was on. Motte didn't appear again for a month, and squandering quality starts from Westbrook became a habit.

 

Chicago Cubs 3, Cardinals 2

Aug. 14. Busch Stadium

The pivot point of the season, and the largest crowd since opening day (46,313) joined suspended manager Tony La Russa in the seats to see it. The Cardinals were alone in first place when the game started, and have not been since. Carlos Zambrano returned to the mound for his second start since a forced hiatus to address anger-management issues, and he held the Cardinals to two runs in 5 2/3 innings, outpitching ace Chris Carpenter, who said he couldn't keep his delivery consistent. Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee had solo homers to build the Cubs' lead, and the Cardinals sabotaged their chances to tie the game.

La Russa was serving his one-game suspension for the brawl in Cincinnati, and all he could do was watch as dugout decisions and lack execution ended scoring opportunities. The Cardinals popped up three bunt attempts in the game. With Jon Jay inexplicably pinch-hit for in the seventh, Colby Rasmus had to face lefty Sean Marshall with the tying run on and no outs in the eighth. Rasmus popped up his bunt attempt, and shortstop Brendan Ryan failed twice in the ninth against closer Carlos Marmol. It was the first time in August that the Cardinals did not score four runs in a game, but it wasn't last, and one foul ball quietly offered a reason why. During an at-bat, Rasmus fouled a pitch off his shin. He believes that pain caused him to compensate when running and strain his calf - an injury that forced him to miss two weeks and the Cardinals to grope for offense without him.

 

Milwaukee 3, Cardinals 2

Aug. 17, Busch Stadium

Several trends for the Cardinals converged as a habit of turning mediocre pitchers into aces and an overexposed Felipe Lopez at third base contributed to a loss. Lopez committed two errors and his fatigue and frustration at the position he had to play became increasingly apparent. Jaime Garcia pitched around Lopez's throwing error in the second by striking out two batters with the bases loaded. The lefty couldn't escape damage after Lopez's second error. The infielder bobbled a sharp grounder, allowing the Brewers to load the bases. The first run scored on a double play, the next two on Casey McGehee's home run. Those were all the runs Milwaukee got, all were unearned, and all the Brewers would need.

Starter Dave Bush came into the game with a 4.78 ERA overall and a 6.40 ERA in his previous 10 appearances against the Cardinals. Naturally, he confounded them. The Cardinals got only two runners into scoring position in six innings against Bush. This was also noteworthy for where it put the Cardinals in the standings -- two games back of Cincinnati, right where they were before the early-August sweep.

 

Pittsburgh 4, Cardinals 3

Aug. 24. PNC Park

This was the first sign of trouble on the road trip that defined the season. Decisions made for second-guessing eroded Adam Wainwright's otherwise strong night at the Pirates' home ballpark, the first stop on the Cardinals' 10-game trip against losing teams. Bidding to be the majors' first 18-game winner, Wainwright took a two-hit shutout into the sixth. Rookie Jose Tabata benefited from two choices and rallied the Pirates for four runs off Wainwright. Tabata tripled in the sixth inning when his fly ball glanced off center fielder Jon Jay's glove, a play made possible Tony La Russa conceded because Jay was stationed too shallow. In the seventh, La Russa didn't hold Tabata on first allowed the noted thief to take second base unchallenged. He was the eventual winning run, ushered into scoring position by La Russa. "I don't understand it, but I have to say, ‘Thank you,'" Tabata said.

In the ninth, the Cardinals got five hits, loaded the bases and came away with one run. The potential tying run was stopped at third base. On Albert Pujols' infield hit that caromed off third baseman Pedro Alvarez, third base coach Jose Oquendo froze Randy Winn at third as Pirates' shortstop Ronny Cedeno hustled to the loose ball. Winn didn't get a chance to score when Matt Holliday popped up on the first pitch he saw and Felipe Lopez struck out. "I didn't execute today when I needed to, and it really cost us," Wainwright said. He was hardly alone.

 

Washington 11, Cardinals 10 (13 innings)

Aug. 26. Nationals Park

One of the most perplexing losses of the season began with one of the most resounding moments for the club's history. In the fourth inning, Albert Pujols became the 47th major-league player to hit his 400th career, and he is the first to do so in the first 10 seasons of his career. After the milestone, the evening devolved, leaving Tony La Russa to mutter: "A cruel game."

The Cardinals lost leads of 1-0, 5-3 and 10-8. Chris Carpenter gave the team six innings and allowed three earned runs, yet he left the game down 6-5 because of three runs that scored on a throwing error by Felipe Lopez. A four-run ninth against Washington closer Drew Storen pushed Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin into a two-innings save situation. He blew it, and into extras the game went. The loss could have proved more disastrous than the score as both Matt Holliday and Pujols' had injury scares. Holliday was pegged on his hand by a pitch and had to leave the game. In the 11th, Pujols slipped on a rolled-up tarp trying to make a catch in foul territory. He wrenched his ankle, but continued playing, moving gingerly. A game that celebrated his past performance and encouraged talk about future honors, instead left Pujols and the Cardinals truly aching in the present.

 

Florida 4, Cardinals 0

Sept. 20. Sun Life Stadium

The white flag game, if ever there was one. The Cardinals went quietly and quickly in a one-game makeup visit to Florida that took only 1 hour, 52 minutes to play. It was the shortest game in Marlins' history by 2 minutes, it was decided by one pitch, and it triggered the club's shift to a more-inexperienced, more 2011-based lineup the next day.

A throw from center fielder Colby Rasmus to the wrong base aided the Marlins and forced Chris Carpenter to intentionally walk rookie Mike Stanton to face rookie catcher Brad Davis and his 10 career RBIs with the bases loaded. Carpenter went behind 2-0 to the kid and then fired a errant cut fastball that David launched into the left-field seats for his first career grand slam. The Cardinals offered nothing in support but brevity. Against Marlins starter Chris Volstad, who brought a 9.82 September ERA into the start, the Cardinals had only two three-ball counts and didn't get a runner to third base. It was the epitome of the Cardinals sometimes disinteresting offense.

The next day Felipe Lopez was released, a day later Yadier Molina was sent home to have his knee examined, and each day a new September callup made a start. Usually defensive about any inference that his team lacked an edge, manager Tony La Russa even acquiesced when a reporter told him in Florida that it looked like the last game of spring training, when players swing fast and get out of town faster.

"It certainly had that appearance," the manager said. "I don't think that was the reality. But certainly the game was played in less than two hours. What are you going to say to somebody who says, ‘Hey, it looked like you were trying to get out of town?'"