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Cards slip in Central after finishing road trip 3-5

St. Louis faces uncertainty with Trade Deadline approaching
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

CINCINNATI -- As they exited the All-Star break with a new manager and still without a clear identity, the Cardinals eyed their just-completed road trip as a litmus test. The front office hoped the eight games against division opponents to open the second half would dictate their direction heading into next week's non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Though the Wild Card remains in play, changes meant to reposition the Cardinals better for 2019 may come after they slid back to .500 with a 7-3 loss to the Reds on Wednesday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, capping a 3-5 trip through Chicago and Cincinnati.

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CINCINNATI -- As they exited the All-Star break with a new manager and still without a clear identity, the Cardinals eyed their just-completed road trip as a litmus test. The front office hoped the eight games against division opponents to open the second half would dictate their direction heading into next week's non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Though the Wild Card remains in play, changes meant to reposition the Cardinals better for 2019 may come after they slid back to .500 with a 7-3 loss to the Reds on Wednesday afternoon at Great American Ball Park, capping a 3-5 trip through Chicago and Cincinnati.

View Full Game Coverage

"We're working toward where we'd like to go," interim manager Mike Shildt said. "But clearly, there is room for improvement."

Nowhere is that more true than in the bullpen, which allowed four runs Wednesday to swell its total to 25 over the eight-game stretch. So strapped was Shildt for trustworthy relievers with Bud Norris, Jordan Hicks and Sam Tuivailala unavailable, he summoned Sunday's scheduled starter John Gant in place of Jack Flaherty, after Flaherty allowed three runs in five innings. That the Cardinals matched that run total meant little after Gant allowed a Tucker Barnhart two-run homer in the sixth and Luke Gregerson surrendered two runs in the eighth.

In all, the Cards' bullpen posted a 5.78 mark in the series; Flaherty formed a triumvirate of rookie starters that pitched to a 2.45 ERA, by comparison. It is with that discrepancy in mind that St. Louis will scour the trade market for ancillary upgrades before the Deadline.

"There is accountability to everything," Shildt said.

For all the struggles of their bullpen, it was the Cards' offense that's also stalled since its 18-run outburst last week in Chicago. The Cardinals left 11 men on base Wednesday, and scored just six runs over three games at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. All of those games were started by Reds pitchers with ERAs of at least 5.00, including Wednesday's winner Sal Romano, who allowed two runs over six innings.

The Cardinals have not won consecutive games in three weeks, and sport a 6-10 record in that stretch.

"At the beginning of the year, this might be OK," said shortstop Paul DeJong, who homered for the first time in 16 games since returning from the DL. "At this point, we can't give up any more games. We need to find ways to win."

Video: STL@CIN: DeJong belts a solo homer to left in the 3rd

All of which puts the Cardinals in a rare position circa 2018: the middle of the pack. They are neither good enough to shop for a high-end rental nor bad enough to lose faith in their young core. Flaherty is a stable contributor in a group of high-upside arms that the Cards aren't willing to mortgage for short-term support.

"I'm not a pie in the sky, head in the sand, blind optimist, but also, I know St. Louis baseball fans can evaluate things for themselves," Shildt said. "Obviously, we want to win games and that's why we're here. We're here to compete for championship-level baseball. But the way the guys went about it and executed for the most part, I felt has improved. I felt there are areas of more consistency. You'd like to see a little more reward, quite frankly, for their efforts."

MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Yadi misses chance: A half-inning before the two runs Gregerson allowed put the game out of reach in the eighth, the Cards had their best chance to knot the score at 5, down by just two. Yadier Molina stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs against Jared Hughes after the righty walked Matt Carpenter. But Molina, who yanked a solo home run in the seventh, flew out harmlessly to end the threat. St. Louis finished 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

Video: STL@CIN: Hughes induces flyout to escape jam in 8th

Crisis averted: The Cardinals avoided an embarrassing end to the first inning after Molina was caught straying off second with two outs. With the bases loaded and Dexter Fowler at the plate, Molina did not retreat back to the bag after Fowler took ball three from Romano. A rundown ensued, during which the Reds abandoned Molina to cut down Carpenter trying to score from third. Carpenter eventually retreated safely, continuing the inning for Fowler, who grounded the next pitch out to end it.

Video: STL@CIN: Cards escape rundown unscathed in the 1st

"[Molina] didn't think it was strike three. We had something we were looking to do, and it didn't work out," Shildt said. "It didn't not work. He did not get caught sleeping, I can put it that way."

SOUND SMART
Flaherty capped a string of three consecutive rookie starters (along with Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon) for the Cardinals in this three-game series, matching some interesting franchise history. The last time St. Louis tabbed three rookie starters for the entirety of a three-game set was September 1997, when Mike Busby, Matt Morris and Manny Aybar threw against the Cubs. The last time it happened without expanded rosters was August '59, when Bob Gibson, Ernie Broglio and Marshall Bridges made three consecutive starts against the Phillies.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Harrison Bader stalled several rallies by striking out four times in four at-bats, but he also saved a potential extra-base hit with an impressive play in left-center field. Making his second start in nine games under Shildt, Bader raced 104 feet in 5.2 seconds, according to Statcast™, to snag a Joey Votto long drive in the fourth inning for a four-star catch.

Video: STL@CIN: Bader races 103 ft. to make the grab

HE SAID IT
"Nobody is going to say it was a tough road trip. That's our job. But the reality is, it was [a tough trip] … not an excuse, just the reality of it. Guys were fighting tooth and nail." -- Shildt

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Reds challenged when Flaherty caught Billy Hamilton leaning off first base in the fifth, erasing the speedster from the bases in an obvious steal situation. The call was confirmed after a review, and Flaherty completed the inning without incident.

 Video: STL@CIN: Flaherty nabs Hamilton after call overturned

UP NEXT
The Cardinals will get an off-day before opening their second series against the rival Cubs in a week, a three-game set that starts on Friday at Busch Stadium. The series comes at a critical juncture for the Cardinals, who could either leap back into the NL Central race or fall entirely out of it. Luke Weaver (5-9, 4.79) will be recalled from Triple-A Memphis to start Friday against Mike Montgomery (3-3, 3.73), with first pitch set for 7:15 p.m. CT.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Flaherty