MILWAUKEE -- It's a mark the Cardinals have been chasing since June 2, and they'll continue to do so after their sixth chance to climb back to .500 since that date dissolved on Thursday.
For the second time in three days, a one-run loss to the Brewers prevented the Cardinals from pulling back to that elusive benchmark. A 2-1 defeat in the series finale dropped the Cardinals to 53-55 and left them further back of Milwaukee (three games) than when St. Louis arrived for the start of the three-game series.
"I think we're doing everything we can to keep these games close," outfielder Jose Martinez said. "I think if we keep playing like this, we're going to have a pretty good stretch coming up. We're going to stay motivated and try to go out there to get some wins."
Of the six losses with .500 on the line, five have come over the last 17 days. It seems a fitting representation of the quicksand the Cardinals have been unable to escape since returning from the All-Star break. A team that hoped to make a surge in the standings has now split its first 20 games of the second half.
Not since 2007, when the Cardinals were 50-58 after 108 games, have they lagged below .500 this late into the season.
"We feel we have to get over .500 to win this division and so, you know. … we've got to get over it," Michael Wacha said after his four-inning start. "That [would be] a good start, for sure."
The club has teased for stretches, including a 10-5 finish to the first half. Since then, the Cards haven't endured a losing streak of more than two games, but they've also managed to string together three consecutive wins just once. They've alternated wins and losses over the last nine days.
The reasons for the stalled ascent have been varied. Lately, though, a searching offense has been an albatross. Since breaking out for 10 runs in a win over the Rockies on July 26, the Cardinals have pushed across 13 in seven games. Five of those came in a flurry on Wednesday.
During the seven-game stretch, the club has hit .189 with runners in scoring position. That includes a 4-for-23 showing in this series.
"It's just baseball. It'll come," manager Mike Matheny said. "You have these days where you have to scratch and fight for every run. You have to produce. You have to come up with those big hits."
The difficulties generating offensive momentum has kept the Cardinals from capitalizing on an encouraging run of results from their pitchers. The Cards' 3.06 ERA since the All-Star break ranks fourth best in the Majors, but the club has shouldered six losses during that stretch in which it allowed four or fewer runs.
"It's just all a matter of us all clicking at the right time," Wacha said. "It seems like pitching is on one day, hitting's off, or vice versa. [We] just can't get it going clicking the way we want to. We know there are a couple of months left. We can make up that deficit and get on a little roll."