ST. LOUIS -- Stricken by injuries all season, the Cardinals have relied on a patchwork of players to keep the club afloat while key contributors heal.
While those placeholders have done more than pull their weight over the course of a 20-win month, an offense thinned by a recent run of ailments met its match Wednesday against Pittsburgh's Trevor Williams. Williams extended his dominating run and a vulnerable Miles Mikolas gave the Pirates enough of an opening to snatch a 2-0 win that evened the three-game series at Busch Stadium.
A performance that shortstop Paul DeJong described as "a little flat" also gave the Brewers an opening to climb back to within a half-game of the Cardinals in the National League Wild Card race. St. Louis still holds the top spot in those standings.
Even a lineup at full strength would have found Williams, who flaunts a 0.75 ERA over his past eight starts, to be an imposing opponent. However, the task had an added degree of difficulty for St. Louis, given that the Cards entered the night having just placed their third starting position player on the disabled list in the span of a week.
They then lost another when Matt Carpenter exited in the fourth due to nausea. The Cardinals are hopeful that Carpenter is dealing with a 24-hour virus. Nevertheless, his departure left the Cards with a three-man bench and only three healthy members of their Opening Day lineup remaining.
"It's been a wild week here," DeJong said. "But next guy up."
That'll have to remain the mantra for a while longer, too. Marcell Ozuna won't be back until at least this weekend. Kolten Wong will be sidelined for at least another week. And Jedd Gyorko's stint on the 10-day disabled list just began.
Covering absences has become increasingly difficult, too, given that another two key bats -- Yadier Molina and DeJong -- are batting a combined .178 over the team's last 16 games.
"This has been a group effort," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. "We've used pretty much our 40-man [roster] the entire year. It's another opportunity for guys to play. Clearly, we like those guys in the lineup, but we also know we have guys who are confident, big league players who know how to contribute to us putting together a winning effort."
The offense had something promising brewing early. Williams opened the first by walking Carpenter, who then moved to third when Molina doubled. Williams answered by retiring the next three in order, marking the start of the Cardinals' 0-for-9 night with runners in scoring position.
"It was a little terrifying, giving them second and third with nobody out," Williams said. "But it was executing pitches."
While the offense struggled to generate momentum, Pittsburgh pestered Mikolas until he cracked. Mikolas worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, but allowed a succession of hits -- including a bloop single over a drawn-in infield -- in the fifth that put the Pirates ahead by two.
"I think out of the couple hits they got, they only hit one or two hard," Mikolas said. "I don't want to say I'm a victim of bad luck, but a couple of those balls, a couple feet this way or that way, I don't think they are scoring a run at all."
Since reeling off five consecutive starts of at least six innings, Mikolas hasn't pitched past the fifth in either of his last two. Wednesday's loss was Mikolas' first since June 29.
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Early opportunity wasted:Jose Martinez, Tyler O'Neill and DeJong all had first-inning at-bats with a pair of runners in scoring position. None could push a run home. O'Neill was the only one of the three to put a ball in play, and his popout was caught by second baseman Adam Frazier, who made an over-the-shoulder grab in shallow center. Carpenter was already halfway down the third-base line when the ball was caught, thus eliminating any chance he had to tag and race home. Carpenter retreated to third, and Williams closed the frame with his second of eight strikeouts.
"I don't necessarily fear it's going to come back to bite us, but clearly it's an opportunity we feel like we need to capitalize on," Shildt said. "We have a lot of game left, but we don't know when those opportunities are going to present themselves. Second and third, nobody out, you want to score there and maybe get a crooked number."
The Cardinals have been shut out an NL-low five times this season, though three of those have come against the Pirates. Wednesday's shutout loss was the first since the team switched managers in mid-July.
The Cardinals will close out their series with Pittsburgh on Thursday, when the clubs meet in a 6:15 p.m. CT game at Busch Stadium. Coming off a seven-inning no-decision over the weekend, right-hander John Gant (5-5, 3.56 ERA) will oppose Pirates righty Joe Musgrove (5-7, 3.56 ERA).