Looking for something to yank them out of their first extended funk, the Cardinals have learned that what is true for a towrope also is true for their play: It doesn't matter how hard they tug, it won't help if the fibers have started to fray.
Loose defense, a solitary burst of offense and another abbreviated start dragged the Cardinals to a 6-4 loss against the visiting Chicago Cubs on Monday.
The Cardinals gamely rallied from a four-run deficit but couldn't solve the Cubs' bullpen. In relief of starter Jake Westbrook, the Cardinals' bullpen delicately pitched out of trouble with a tie but eventually would surrender the winning run.
The defense almost rescued them in the eighth inning.
Two errors cost them in the ninth.
As soon as they had traction, their game gave way.
"Certainly not as sharp we like it right now," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've seen the kind of baseball we can play and we've seen the kind on the poor end if we're not real careful. We're in a spot we're going to have to work our way out of."
Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano looped a two-out RBI single to left field off Mitchell Boggs that broke a 4-4 tie in the eighth inning and proved to be the winner. In the span of eight batters and two innings, the Cubs tried to sacrifice bunt four times, and that worked in the ninth when two errors by the Cardinals added the final run of the game.
Righty Rafael Dolis, serving as a Cubs' closer with Carlos Marmol on the disabled list, collected his fourth save with a perfect ninth. That also meant the Cardinals' fourth consecutive loss, their longest losing streak since last June. Back home after their sweep of Arizona, the Cardinals dropped three to the first-place Atlanta Braves over the weekend and followed with a loss to the last-place Cubs.
"We knew it wasn't going to be smooth sailing the whole year," Cards first baseman Lance Berkman said. "During the course of the season you're going to have little ruts when you're not getting the breaks, when you're not playing well, and that compounds the problem."
There hasn't been an element of the Cardinals' play that has been watertight since their return from the desert.
Westbrook became the fifth starter in the past seven games to fail to reach the sixth inning. The Cubs jumped Westbrook for four runs in the fifth inning, including a two-run homer from Bryan LaHair that was his fourth of the season against the Cardinals. Westbrook left the Cardinals' taxed bullpen with more than three innings to swallow for the sixth time in the past seven games.
"I can't do that," Westbrook said. "I can't pitch that way. I've got to get deeper into the ballgame."
Spotted a four-run lead for the first time all season, Cubs starter Ryan Dempster and his sub-1.00 ERA wilted in the sixth as the Cardinals unhooked Westbrook with a four-run burst. Berkman had an RBI single, Yadier Molina lined a two-run double and Skip Schumaker tied the game with a two-out RBI single. It was Schumaker's 22nd hit in 51 at-bats against Dempster.
The game then hinged on strategy.
Promoted Monday morning to reinforce the Cardinals' bullpen, Eduardo Sanchez pitched a perfect sixth inning and Victor Marte was perfect when he had to be in the seventh.
Matheny used two intentional walks to dictate the forceouts and matchups for Marte. With the pitcher's spot on deck, Marte intentionally walked the No. 8 hitter knowing a pinch-hitter was coming with the bases now loaded. He struck out Reed Johnson to keep the game tied.
It was the third time in seven innings the Cubs left the bases loaded.
Their difficulty scoring runs was evident in the eighth as .336-hitting No. 3 hitter Starlin Castro dropped a bunt that the Cardinals then wheeled into a double play. With two outs, Matheny had Boggs walk LaHair so he could face Soriano. In nine previous at-bats vs. Boggs, Soriano was hitless with seven strikeouts. Boggs fell behind in the count and Soriano connected on a 3-1 pitch.
"I had a guy who I've had some good success against up there," Boggs said. "Did he hit the ball hard? No. Was it a bad pitch? No. But did he do what he had to do? Absolutely. … Those things tend to happen when you fall behind guys."
Those things have tended to happen recently for the Cardinals.
Allen Craig had a leadoff double in the eighth, the only Cardinals hit off the Cubs' bullpen, and the next three batters failed to advance him an inch. In the ninth, David Freese tried to duplicate the slick double play on Castro's bunt, but his throw was wild and another run scored.
Attempts to get unstuck proved just as sticky.
"We have to watch guys aren't trying to do too much, trying to hit a three-run homer with nobody on base," Berkman said. "What you have to do in these kinds of situations is everybody is going to compete individually as hard as they can and collectively that pulls you out of the slump."