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WAUKEE -- The St. Louis Cardinals are in a close-but-not-quite mode. They are close enough to see the place where they want to be, but getting from here to there has not been automatic.
Tuesday night's game at Miller Park against the Milwaukee Brewers was indicative of the way things have gone too often for the defending World Series champions. In a 3-2 loss, the Cardinals created, then wasted, some golden opportunities.
"We had a couple of them," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've said that a lot. ... We had the opportunities, we were right where we wanted to be."
The biggest opportunity, and the subsequent biggest letdown, came in the ninth. Tuesday, the Brewers had changed closers, ousting John Axford from the role and replacing him with Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod, as Rodriguez was once known, owns the single-season Major League saves record of 62 in 2008 with the Angels, but this season he had struggled in an eighth-inning setup role. David Freese doubled to open the inning, and Yadier Molina singled him to third. It looked like the kind of ninth-inning heroics the Cardinals had produced Monday night in a 3-2 come-from-behind victory against Milwaukee.
But no. Matt Carpenter grounded out, with Freese holding at third and Molina taking second. Skip Schumaker pinch-hit and struck out. Daniel Descalso pinch-hit and popped to short. An extremely promising situation was transformed into a thoroughly disappointing ending.
The Cardinals had a truly difficult series in Cincinnati over the weekend. They were swept in three games but were outscored by a total of only five runs. But now, this looked like a time for the Cardinals to go on a tear. Beset by injuries earlier in the season, they finally had their full complement of position players. That didn't last long, either. Left fielder Matt Holliday was struck on the left thigh by a Randy Wolf fastball in the first Tuesday night and departed an inning later.
"He couldn't run," Matheny said.
Holliday's playing status for the near future was not immediately known.
Frustration bubbled over for at least one Cardinal. That was Lance Berkman, one of the game's most accomplished hitters. With one out in the seventh, with runners on second and third, the Cardinals trailing by one run, Berkman pinch-hit against Wolf, who entered this game 2-6 with a 5.80 earned run average. It was true that the Milwaukee bullpen had blown some leads for Wolf, but it was also true that he had not won a game since April, and that the only two teams he had beaten this season were the Astros and the Padres.
On the other hand, Berkman was 3-for-32 lifetime against Wolf. Here, he was called out on a checked swing by home plate umpire Brian Gorman. This followed a 3-1 pitch that Berkman thought was ball four but was called a strike. Berkman went back to the clubhouse, looked at a replay of the checked swing that confirmed his view of the play, re-emerged and told Gorman that he had missed the call, and should at least have asked for an appeal.
Berkman was, of course, ejected. While replays did support the notion that he checked his swing, there were some larger issues lingering around this episode for the Cardinals.
"We played lousy," Berkman said. "We haven't been hitting well. We should have won this game tonight. There's no reason we shouldn't have. They didn't beat us, we beat ourselves."
Berkman didn't spare himself, including what had become a 3-for-33 lifetime record against Randy Wolf.
"They're paying me a lot of money to get the job done, and it doesn't matter who's on the mound," Berkman said.
"We're not playing well, if you want to boil it down to its bare essence. When we have the opportunity to drive guys in, especially the last two weeks, we haven't done it. We just have not hit well. We have not hit well situationally. That's why we haven't been winning. We're not playing well.
"Over the course of a season, even the good teams are going to play like this. But the good teams figure out a way to minimize the times when things aren't going well. We've got to try to do that."
The Cardinals remain convinced that turning this situation around is a matter of when, not if.
"I don't think there's any doubt; same way with everybody in there," Matheny said, nodding toward the Cardinals clubhouse. "It's just a matter of us doing it consistently. It's a lot of talk until then."
Based on the offensive talent on this club, based on what it has accomplished in the recent past, yes, of course, the Cardinals' improvement should be an issue of when rather than if. But as the manager said, that's only talk until this club turns it, finally and consistently, into action.