To a man, the Cardinals praised Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Randy Wolf for his eight-inning performance in the Brewers' 4-1 win Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium.
They were far less complimentary about the circumstances under which the game was played.
Minutes after absorbing a dull-looking loss that put them 10½ games behind the division-leading Brewers, first baseman Albert Pujols and left fielder Matt Holliday spoke for numerous teammates as well as themselves when criticizing a 3:15 p.m. starting time that left hitters wincing through shadows for most of the game.
A game controlled by Wolf (12-9) and closer John Axford also included nine early strikeouts from Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Westbrook, who credited an especially effective change-up for his high strikeout total but also admitted an inability to track the ball to the plate.
"If you don't get a hit in your first two at-bats, you're not going to get a hit unless you're lucky," Holliday said.
The Cardinals didn't get lucky Monday.
After reaching Wolf for a first-inning double and a second-inning single, they scratched for only two more hits and scored their run on a fifth-inning double-play grounder. The Cardinals (74-67) have scored three runs in the 19 innings covering their last two losses.
"I can never remember a game that bad," said Pujols, who doubled in his first at-bat but admittedly groped for pitches in his final three plate appearances. "From the second inning on, as soon as that shadow goes from behind the catcher to in front of the plate you'd better be on top and score some runs. Because after that it's pretty over."
The Cardinals went 0 for four with runners in scoring position Monday a day after going 0 for eight in the same situation against the Cincinnati Reds. They have played three consecutive afternoon games, scoring nine runs total while losing twice.
"I don't want anybody to read it wrong. I don't want to disrespect the job (Wolf) did. He did a pretty good job. He kept the ball down," said Pujols, who heard complaints from almost every Brewer to reach base. "It wasn't fair for us to see. And it wasn't fair for them to see."
At times, the pitcher stood in deep shadows with a ribbon of sunshine bisecting the infield and the hitter standing in another shaded area.
Pujols described the ball as looking like "a resin bag."
Holliday insisted it was impossible to pick up rotation.
"If you can't see spin on the ball, how are you going to hit?" he asked.
Added Pujols: "You can't see it. It's almost like someone is throwing a resin bag. My second at-bat (a fourth-inning fly ball) he threw the ball and it went from the light to the shadow and I'm like, 'Where's the ball?'"
The issue was not unique to Monday. Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman called conditions "a farce" during the previous home stand and suggested the Players Association make afternoon start times an issue during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. Berkman did not appear in Monday's game and was unavailable when the clubhouse opened afterward.
However, Pujols and Holliday had no problem expounding on Berkman's earlier point.
"It's hard to evaluate yourself when you can't see the ball," Holliday said.
"It's not fun as a hitter. It's really not safe at all," said Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun. "We do that at our place, too. It happens. It is definitely not fun. You don't look forward to it, that's for sure."
Westbrook used 68 pitches to clear the first three innings but faced only 12 hitters his final three. After managing one ground ball through four innings, he got six ground-ball outs in his last two. Both teams thought Westbrook's heavy use of a change-up — a pitch he typically rarely uses — factored heavily in his success as he faced the Brewers for the third time since Aug. 10. However, pitching in Monday's shadows even offered something of a challenge.
"Once the ball gets to a certain point I lose them, even throwing the ball," Westbrook said.
The Brewers (85-57) struck out nine times in the first four innings against Westbrook (11-8) but managed a second-inning run on three consecutive two-out hits, including back-to-back infield hits by Wolf and right fielder Cory Hart to score shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who started the trouble with a double.
Westbrook later scolded himself for not cleanly fielding Wolf's grounder to the mound, and Hart outran shortstop Rafael Furcal's throw from the deep hole at shortstop.
Braun, reappearing just before shadows crept over the plate, slammed his 27th home run to provide a 2-0 lead in the third inning.
"It's a matter of holding them down before the shadows get there. It just wasn't the case today," Westbrook said.
Wolf made his 19th career start against the Cardinals a difficult one for them. He walked two, struck out five and mostly avoided hard contact.
After jumping Wolf for six earned runs in five innings at Miller Park last Wednesday, the Cardinals recognized his performance, but not without an asterisk.
"Whoever's ahead in the fourth inning is probably going to win," Holliday said.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was less sympathetic, citing the team's inability to score more than two runs in Sunday's 1:15 p.m. start.
"Maybe if we had done more yesterday, we'd have more to stand on," said La Russa, still irritated over his team's inability to score more than twice in a 10-inning loss.
Within limits the club is contractually bound to change start times when one of Major League Baseball's television rightsholders makes such a request. However, Monday's game was not a national telecast. Pujols said he had approached "people" within the organization about changing Monday's starting time after the Cardinals lost 7-0 in an afternoon game Aug. 27.
"I said something last week when we played. I said, 'Could we move that game? Can we play a (noon) game? And they didn't care about it," Pujols said.
Pujols did not specify whom he approached; however, La Russa later said general manager John Mozeliak was aware of the request.
"Any 3 (p.m.) game that is not mandatory should be changed," Holliday said. "I think Fox, MLB and the Players Association should look at moving the national game of the week to 7 (p.m.). If you're not ahead in the third inning, if the hitters can't see the ball, it makes for a noncompetitive game once the shadows set in."
The later the date, the earlier shadows arrive.
"Earlier in the season it's not an issue until the seventh or eighth innings. So there are six innings to try to win," Holliday said.
Mozeliak acknowledged Monday night speaking to Pujols and Holliday about the matter.
"Unfortunately, it is difficult to change times on short notice," Mozeliak said via text. "But it is something we may look at in future years."