NEW YORK -- A staple of pitchers' fielding practice during the early weeks of Spring Training now haunts the Cardinals in July after an opportunity to push their series finale against the Mets into extra innings Thursday was abruptly thwarted by yet another lapse in fundamentals.
A day after miscommunication between the club's middle infielders caused things to unravel early, Trevor Rosenthal's inability to cover first base cost the Cards a chance at taking three of four at Citi Field. Instead, they head to Chicago on the heels of their third walk-off loss -- this one a 3-2 defeat -- in seven days.
"When you lose by beating yourself, that's when it leaves a sour taste in your mouth," first baseman Matt Carpenter said. "Today, that's exactly what happened."
After Brett Cecil allowed a game-tying homer in the eighth, Rosenthal took over a 2-2 game in the ninth. He complicated things immediately with a leadoff walk, and a two-out single pushed the winning run to third. In stepped Jose Reyes, who took a good look at the Cardinals' defensive alignment before turning his attention to Rosenthal.
"I saw the first baseman playing way back," Reyes said. "I said, 'If I hit something there, I'll hustle to first base.'"
Rosenthal was made aware of Carpenter's positioning, too, so he knew not to expect Carpenter to be holding on the runner at first.
Reyes swung at Rosenthal's first pitch, a 97.8-mph fastball, hitting it sharply down the first-base line. Carpenter snagged the ball and spun around, ready to toss it to his pitcher for the third out of the inning.
But Rosenthal wasn't there.
"I just got caught watching the play," Rosenthal said. "It's a fundamental play. If we expect guys to play defense behind us, we have to do our part, too. If I go off the bat like I'm supposed to, it's a for-sure out."
Rosenthal's delayed reaction prevented him from catching up to Reyes, and Carpenter had no shot at outsprinting the shortstop to the bag. Reyes slid into first base as the winning run crossed home.
"It's frustrating when you give games away like that," Carpenter said. "That just can't happen. You can make errors. You can strike out. But you can't do that. … Those are things that you can control. Covering the bag. He knows. He knows that. It's just unfortunate."
It's not the first such fielding lapse Rosenthal has had this month, either. In the team's July 1 game vs. the Nationals, Rosenthal's late break to cover first cost him the chance at an inning-ending double play. Washington went on to score a run, and Matt Bowman had to bail Rosenthal out of a bases-loaded mess to seal a one-run victory.
"That's one of those things where you do it once, that's OK," Carpenter said. "But you can't let it happen again."
"That just has to be something that you're thinking about ahead of time," added manager Mike Matheny.
Faulty fundamentals have impeded this club's pursuit of catching back up in the National League Central all season. In particular, the Cards have gotten in their own way with defensive miscues and baserunning blunders, both of which have loomed largely in several tight games. With Thursday's loss, the Cardinals are 13-18 in one-run contests.
Their margin for error will shrink even more now, as a 10-game stretch against postseason hopefuls Chicago, Colorado and Arizona begins on Friday.
"Time is running out," Cecil said. "We just have to focus on fundamentals, making better pitches, hitting, fielding, everything. We just have to be better."