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St. Louis Cardinals V Washington Nationals

St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong (12) waits for his glove after grounding into a fielder's choice with two runners on base to end the fifth inning during a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

For the Cardinals, as they creep closer to a pivotal tangle in the ivy this weekend, the fade of their offense forces them to determine if they’re seeing pitchers play their best — or if they’re just being played.

The Cardinals couldn’t resist the allure of one of the game’s elite sliders and managed to score only on errors as Washington and lefty Patrick Corbin drew them into a 6-2 loss Tuesday night at Busch Stadium. Committed to the same lineup for a season-high fifth consecutive game, the Cardinals offered more reasons for a shakeup than hits as they reached down and out of the zone for Corbin’s sinister pitch, striking out 14 total times and aggravating their troubles with runners in scoring position by going zero-for-nine.

“Bad day,” said cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna, as he walked out of the clubhouse. “Everybody had a bad day. We were battling, but we couldn’t get him.”

The Nationals, those wild-card carpetbaggers from the East, did their part to force the Cardinals deeper into the National League Central bottleneck. Losses from the Cardinals (84-67) and Cubs (82-69) kept them static atop the division on the eve of a four-game, head-to-head, defining series at Wrigley Field. Milwaukee (82-69) defeated the Padres to move into a tie with the second-place Cubs, and the Brewers have the friendlier schedule as the Cardinals and Cubs compare flaws all weekend. The Cardinals, who have the same lead in the division that they do for a wild-card berth, are the only one of the three to face winning teams from here. The Cardinals have reached the sprint to the finish unsure of how to create a run.

Oh, and Max Scherzer starts against them Wednesday.

Not exactly an aspirin for the offense.

The Cardinals twice tied Tuesday’s game on runs they conjured out of errors. In the third Paul DeJong swung at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded and got a hard grounder up the middle. Trea Turner botched the pickup and the first of two unearned runs against Corbin (13-7) scored. In the sixth, the Cardinals continued to run wild on Nats catcher Yan Gomes — and a double steal drew an errant throw from him to third. Tommy Edman skedaddled home for a 2-2 game. The game splintered later on reliever John Gant for the second time in three days, and the Nats were able to pull away. Corbin, the lefty in Washington’s top-shelf rotation, twisting the dimmer switch on the Cardinals’ offense had already decided the game.

Eight of their last 10 runs scored have come on homers. Ozuna has the Cardinals’ only RBIs in their past 18 innings, and they’re two-for-21 vs. Washington with runners in scoring position.

Ozuna has both hits.

“I think what you see is a combination of things,” manager Mike Shildt said. “When guys are executing pitches that’s not a great recipe for a lot of high numbers or scores. We do what we can to scratch and claw. We kind of stole a run there with Harrison (Bader) and Eddy. It’s a combination of those guys being over the plate and us letting them a little bit. … As a group we need to make sure that if they’re getting outs, they’re getting them in the zone.”

In the sixth, the game seemed to hinge on what would have been a no-doubt double for more than 100 years — until replay. Juan Soto appeared to bounce off the bag as DeJong maintained the tag on his leg. Replay and its slow-motion video invites teams to challenge that call — and it steals stolen bases from players — but officials in New York didn’t see what the Cardinals did. Soto scored three batters later on a two-out single off starter Miles Mikolas (9-14) to retake the lead for the Nats. Before that run, Mikolas had managed all of the Nats except Howie Kendrick, who tripled and homered for the first two runs. Washington widened the lead in the eighth after Shildt replaced Giovanny Gallegos with Gant. Gallegos had retired all four batters he faced, but with an eye on Thursday and the series in Chicago, Shildt removed his setup man before his pitch count climbed.

Instead, Gant’s inconsistencies did.

He’s retired one of the past six batters he’s faced, is responsible for four runs in that stretch and once again left a rookie in a late-inning bind.

There has been a slow leak from the lineup in the past week, starting with Chi Chi Gonzalez’s stymying of the Cardinals in Colorado with his changeup, to the Cardinals going fly-fishing against his teammate, Antonio Senzatela the next day. The Cardinals managed two runs total in two losses to the Rockies, and then brought some of the thin fare home. They also had times when they flexed. Against Washington righthander Stephen Strasburg, the Cardinals forced him back into the strike zone as he threw at least 25 strikes in a single inning. Yet, the wear on the pitcher became the where is the hitting with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals stole four bases Monday and got another runner from first to third on an error. Not one of those five scored.

In the third inning Tuesday, the Cardinals forced Corbin to throw 31 pitches, but he dictated the zone, drawing them from it, most often with his slider.

“It’s hard to pick up,” said Paul Goldschmidt, a longtime teammate of Corbin’s in the Arizona system. “It comes out looking just like his fastball. It doesn’t go up or to the side. It just comes out straight for a longer part of the pitch. Seems like it’s late-breaking, and then at the last second it breaks. That’s what guys who get to first say to me when I was on his team.”

No slider got as many strikeouts last season as Corbin’s and that earned him a $140-million payday this past winter from Washington. He struck out Ozuna on a slider to end the first inning, and got Paul DeJong to strike out on a slider to start the second. All three outs in the second came on strikeouts. All three of them came on sliders. Of the 16 pitches those three batters saw, nine were sliders. In the pre-game meeting, the Cardinals discussed how if they got to a 3-0 count with Corbin, they should count on a fastball.

In the third with the bases loaded, DeJong got that count.

He got that fastball.

He scalded a groundball.

“Be smart about it,” Shidt said. “He goes 3-1 and you’re looking at getting sliders again.”

Corbin struck out nine of the first 17 batters he faced and had 11 total in six innings. The Cardinals went zero-for-six against him with runners in scoring position.

Four were strikeouts.

Leaving the clubhouse late Tuesday, Kolten Wong said, “He did his thing.”

The Cardinals have to fix theirs.

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