Even as resilient as this Cardinals team had proven to be over the past three months, it’s hard not to wonder whether this past weekend may have been a critical turning point in the season. We all know the stories of the Cardinals’ injuries by now, but up until Friday night, the team still held a share of first place in the NL Central.
Once again, the Cardinals had rallied to overcome a deficit and had knotted the game at 4-4. With closer Fernando Salas on the mound for the top of the 9th, the Cardinals seemed to have the upper hand in the game. But with 1 out, Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista sent a long fly ball towards the Cardinals bullpen. Jon Jay tracked it all the way to the wall, leaped high in the air, but missed the ball by inches. The Blue Jays took the game, and Milwaukee took over the division lead.
Twenty-four hours later, it was the 3rd inning (and the men in blue) that did the Red Birds in. With the score tied 1-1, the Blue Jays had runners at the corners and 2 outs when catcher J.P. Arencibia hit a hot-shot to 3rd base. Daniel Descalso made a diving stop, but his throw pulled Lance Berkman off the bag. Berkman was able to make it back in time, but the 1st base umpire called Arencibia safe, allowing the runner from third to score and the inning to continue. The next batter jacked a 3-run homerun, and in the blink of an eye it was 5-1 and the Jays were on their way to a 6-3 victory. The Brewers, meanwhile, pulled 2 games ahead of the Cardinals in the division.
Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals were locked in another tight ballgame in the 6th until a chopper to first base resulted in an errant throw home and opened the flood gates for another big inning. In 48 hours, the Cardinals lost 3 winnable games; and 3 important games in the standings to the Brewers.
As difficult as a home-sweep would normally be, it’s twice as hard for the Cardinals under their current set of circumstances. If you want to sum up the first half of the Cardinals’ season with one number, one telling statistic, it might be 77. That’s the number of games reserve right fielder Jon Jay has played in, leading the team in that category.
Not a single opening day starter has missed fewer than 5 games this season. David Freese, Matt Holliday, and Skip Schumaker alone have missed a combined 102 games thus far. Three-time MVP Albert Pujols will have missed 4-6 weeks by the time he returns to the lineup, and ace Adam Wainwright will not throw a single pitch for the 2011 squad.
With this recent sweep, the Cardinals have now lost 12 of their last 15 games. While it’s nearly impossible to say that a sweep in June was the knock-out punch for the Red Birds, it has certainly knocked them down in a big way.
The Cardinals have 13 games left before the All-Star Break against the Orioles, Rays, Reds, and Diamondbacks. They’re also getting David Freese back. Mid-to-late July will bring the return of Allen Craig, Albert Pujols, and Eduardo Sanchez. The rest of the team has to get back off the mat and roll with the punches until then, or postseason chances could be lost by the time the Cardinals are back at full strength.