With playoff hopes still in limbo, Cardinals fall flat

ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals can overcome it all and reach the postseason. The math isn't even all that burdensome. Fivethirtyeight.com pegs their postseason chances even after Monday night's 15-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at 48 percent.

But it's safe to say the stage hasn't exactly been set for a rip-roaring homestand to launch them into the playoffs.

The night started off with relatively scant energy, particularly when compared to Chicago, where Wrigley Field shook for parts of nine innings like a rock concert Sunday night. The Cardinals sold only 34,942 tickets for Monday's game, their lowest total in more than three years, snapping a streak of 230 straight games with 40,000-plus tickets sold.

Don't blame the fans. The Cardinals were eight games under .500 at home, even before Monday. There were other entertainment options, including a presidential debate and a Monday Night Football game. It was a school night. The weather was a bit chilly.

By the fourth inning, the Cardinals probably wished fewer fans had shown up. Many of those in the building booed them loudly during a seven-run Cincinnati inning, then cheered sarcastically when pitcher Tim Adleman grounded out to end the inning. The Cardinals might have some of the most patient fans in baseball, but patience has its limits. The team realizes it hasn't been giving people here much in return for their dollars.

"None of us want to be booed, but people put their hard-earned money into showing up here and that's a freedom they have," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We take it very seriously what kind of product we put out there, and if it isn't up to their standards, then it isn't. We go about our business to fix it."

It's still there for the taking if the Cardinals can somehow get over the bad vibes at home. They remained within 1½ games of the New York Mets -- who lost an emotional game in Miami the day after the death of Marlins ace Jose Fernandez -- and now trail the San Francisco Giants by a game for one of the two wild-card spots.

They're still in the hunt, of course, but three factors are working against them. The first is that they are running out of games, with just six left. The second is that all of those games are at home, where they are 33-42. The third is that they'll need a fifth starter one more time in the regular season, on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Three of the candidates to get that start did not exactly make convincing arguments Monday night. The Cardinals had seen Jaime Garcia's struggles before, so they had a reliever, Michael Wacha, up by the fifth batter of the game. By then, Garcia had already allowed three hits, two of them home runs. He also hasn't held runners on very well. And the Reds, even without speedster Billy Hamilton, stole three bases in the first inning. They would have had a fourth (and another run), but Jose Peraza, slid past third base, and the replay picked it up.

Garcia has been struggling with his mechanics, particularly when he tries to shorten up his delivery to deter stolen bases. The Reds, who have good team speed, had obviously been paying attention to their scouting reports.

"The starting pitcher didn’t get the job done. And I know when the starting pitcher keeps us in the game and sets the pace for the whole team; I wasn’t able to do that tonight," Garcia said. "I'm very disappointed in myself, and I feel shame right now. I know my teammates are very disappointed in me."

Wacha took over for the second inning and was worse than Garcia, allowing seven runs on nine hits in 2⅔ innings. Luke Weaver came in next and was worse yet, allowing five runs on four hits, while getting just two outs.

Matheny was stumped when he was asked who he would consider to start in Saturday's game after that display by the three primary candidates.

"I have no idea right now," Matheny said. "Yeah, I have no idea. We'll cross that when we get to it."

Rather than go with any of those possibilities or Mike Mayers or Jerome Williams, the Cardinals could empty out their bullpen in Saturday's game, with Trevor Rosenthal a possibility to start, followed by a long line of relievers -- a group fortified by the expanded September roster.

And just think, pitching hasn't been the Cardinals' biggest worry lately. Much of their lineup remained in a deep slump, managing just six hits against entirely underwhelming Reds pitchers. And before the game, Matheny divulged that the team's best hitter, Matt Carpenter, has a bruised right middle finger that has been affecting his hitting. It filled in one blank, helping to explain why Carpenter has batted .222 with just a .374 slugging percentage over his past 45 games.

"We're trying to get ahead of that, but it just doesn't look right right now," Matheny said of Carpenter. "We need to get him into a good place. And if taking a day gets him into a good spot where he feels good about his swing and feels good about every part of his game, so be it. If it takes more than that and somebody else can jump in there and help us, we'll figure it out."

Lately, the Cardinals have a lot of things to figure out and not a lot of time to do it.