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Early season fun is over for St. Louis Cardinals

Almost all of the preseason fears have been realized in the last three weeks for St. Louis Cardinals fans as the team eventually fell from its perch atop the NL Central.

Aside from shortstop Rafeal Furcal, every older position player has experienced an injury that either placed them on the disabled list or kept them out of the starting lineup for multiple games. And those injuries are quickly taking their toll on the team.

First baseman Lance Berkman had knee surgery this week to repair meniscus damage that will likely keep him on the shelf for about two months. On top of that, center fielder Jon Jay, man-without-a-position Allen Craig and reliever Kyle McClellan are all biding their time on the DL, not to mention starting pitcher Chris Carpenter, who has been out since Spring Training.

The Cardinals entered play Friday in second-place for the first time this season, one half game behind the Cincinnati Reds. Then they lost again to the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3 in 10 innings.

Granted, the Reds are 7-3 in their last 10 games, but heading into play Saturday the Cardinals haven’t beaten a team above .500 since May 16 when they beat the San Francisco Giants 4-1.

However, the most troubling aspect of this May slide is that it is tough to find silver linings for the near future. Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright finally pitched like the Wainwright everyone remembers Tuesday by shutting out the San Diego Padres on three hits. Other than that, the bullpen has been a mess, other starters haven’t gotten deep into ballgames and the offense has failed to come through in key spots late in games with runners in scoring position.

The latest example was in the ninth inning Friday when second baseman Tyler Greene and left fielder Matt Holliday both struck out with runners on second and third. One base hit would’ve one the game, but Greene watched strike three and Holliday swung threw the pitch from Raul Valdez.

Yes, the Cardinals offense ranks near the top of the league in several categories, but they are hitting .258 with runners in scoring position. That puts a lot of pressure on the pitching staff to consistently put up zeroes late in games.

Now that’s not to say the pitching staff doesn’t deserve a substantial amount of the blame. The bullpen, in particular, has sucked the life out of several potential late-inning rallies by giving up an extra run or two in the sixth inning or later.

Closer Jason Motte gave up the back-breaking two-run homer in the 10th that won the game for the Phillies, but the double reliever Mitchell Boggs gave up to Juan Pierre in the seventh to tie the game at three played just as much a part in the Cardinals losing that game.

The Cardinals had made winning baseball games look relatively easy at the beginning of the season, and they very well might get on a similar roll late in the season when several key players are back on the field recovered from their injuries.

But, fans might have to temper their expectations for the next month or so to hope the Cardinals play .500 ball and simply remain close to the Reds in the standings.

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