BOSTON -- Though their recent eight-game winning streak was buoyed by an offense that averaged 8.5 runs per game during the stretch, the Cardinals' ability to remain locked in a tightly contested National League Central race has been largely the doing of a formidable rotation.
But the stumbles have been a bit more frequent for that rotation lately, and, in Tuesday's 10-4 loss to the Red Sox, the Cardinals didn't have nearly enough offense to keep Mike Leake's shortened start from being exposed.
Boston chased Leake during an eight-run fifth in which the right-hander allowed the final seven batters he faced to reach. Once ranking among the NL's ERA leaders, Leake has now seen six of his last eight starts last five or fewer innings. The Cardinals have lost all but one of those.
Concerns about weakness and fatigue -- which Leake himself made public after a start last month -- persist, though the right-hander insisted he felt no different Tuesday than he had in recent weeks.
"I've been the same," Leake said. "I think just because one outing I give up eight runs doesn't mean it's something that's all of a sudden different."
But with his sinker not so sharp, the velocity a tick lower than the Cardinals are used to seeing and the previous acknowledgement of feeling physically compromised, the organization is maintaining a watchful eye.
"As he gets deeper into the game, it's something we're going to have to continue to keep an eye on, because [the trouble] just kind of came in a hurry," manager Mike Matheny said.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak had said previously that, if necessary, the club could alter its rotation plans should Leake need extra rest or additional time to build up strength.
But Leake isn't the only starter who has hit a recent patch of adversity. In fact, there loom more questions about the starting five now than there have been at any other point this season.
Adam Wainwright has been fending off a run of maladies, including back stiffness, a cut to his finger and, most recently, stiffness in his pitching arm. He's averaged 21 pitches per inning in his two starts since coming off the disabled list and has finished six innings in a start twice since June.
Carlos Martinez continues to be pestered by first-inning troubles, and Michael Wacha has followed a sensational July (1.93 ERA) by allowing an .806 OPS and .317 opponents' batting average in three August starts.
Since a run of seven straight starts of at least six innings, Cardinals starters have logged five or fewer in nine of the last 18 games. The rotation ERA during that stretch sits at 4.52. In contrast, the group posted a 3.77 ERA over the season's first 101 games.