ST. LOUIS If the St. Louis Cardinals miss out on the playoffs and look back later at where things might have gone wrong, not taking advantage of some stellar starting pitching the past month may be near the top of the list.
The Cardinals got another quality start from rookie Joe Kelly Monday, his sixth straight quality outing and the seventh straight such start from the team. But they lost 5-3 to the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending a three-game winning streak and falling a season-worst six games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the N.L. Central.
It was an unwelcomed scene that's happened far too much of late for the Cardinals, who continue to waste great starting pitching by struggling to get timely hits and put multiple-run innings together.
The starting rotation of Kelly, Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook had a microscopic 2.03 ERA since June 2. But the Cardinals are just 9-8 during that stretch including a 3-8 mark in one-run games.
"It's definitely not the pitching," second baseman Skip Schumaker said of the Cardinals recent struggles. "We know they are going to pitch like this. It's not like they've been just pitching like this for a couple weeks. They've done it for three of the four months. I have confidence in our staff.
"They've been taking some heat which was unwarranted and now they're back where they should be and we're in a little funk and of course it's frustrating because we're trying to win games. We have a very good pitching staff."
The Cardinals went 14-8 in April thanks in large part to solid starting pitching and a team ERA of 2.61, which was second only to the Washington Nationals in the National League.
But things quickly went downhill in May. The Cardinals allowed more than two runs per game more during the second month of the season and their 4.72 ERA in May was better than only one team in the league.
With speculation increasing during June and July that the Cardinals would need to acquire at least one starting pitcher at the trading deadline, things quietly began getting better. Lynn has allowed just one earned run in 19 innings over his three previous starts and Kelly continued his impressive run Monday night.
Since being called up in June, Kelly has yet to allow more than three earned runs in any of his eight starts and has allowed more than two earned in just one of them. But for his impressive 2.78 ERA, he has just one win to show for it.
"They've been doing great," said outfielder Jon Jay. "As an offense you want to take advantage when the pitching is going good and we just cant' put a finger on why but hopefully everything comes together.
"You win this game with pitching and defense and I think we've done a good job of that. Offensively we just have to take advantage of situations."
Kelly allowed just two earned runs in six innings but fell victim to an error by Lance Berkman at first and a ball that dropped between Rafael Furcal and Matt Holliday in left field in the second inning. Both runners scored on a three-run homer by Luis Cruz, the only damage done against the rookie all night long.
But it was the 15th quality start for a Cardinals starter in the past 18 games, a number that should equate to several more wins if not for a surprisingly inconsistent offense that's struggled to score with runners in scoring position for much of the past month.
"The pitching has been great for us for a long time," said Carlos Beltran, who launched a two-run homer in the eighth inning. "Offensively we have had good times and bad times and we're just inconsistent but we're trying and giving it our best.
"We want to score runs and score more than enough to win a ballgame but today was one of those days where you face a good pitcher and it was hard for us to pull a rally together."
The Cardinals haven't been in first place since May 23 but have recently begun to see an uncomfortably big gap build between them and the top. The Reds hold the top spot by a 1.5 game margin over the Pirates and six over the Cardinals.
The Cardinals were two games back of the Reds on June 9 and according to FOX Sports Midwest producer Tim Trokey have seen their starters put up a 2.93 ERA - the best mark in baseball - in 37 games since. But despite the solid pitching, they are just 20-17 during that stretch and lost four games in the standings.
Their offense scored three runs or less in all six games on their recently completed 1-5 road trip and if a couple key hits happen here or there, the Cardinals could have easily been 5-1 instead.
The pitching continues to be great while the offense is struggling. And if they can figure out a way to get the bats going, the Cardinals figure to have a chance to win a lot of games down the stretch.
"The good thing is there is still a lot of time to go but we'd rather get it going now than later," Jay said. "I definitely still believe in our team and the guys in here and the character and the talent we have. We have plenty of time to get things going.
"Sometimes that's just the way it goes. Sometimes you score a lot of runs or give up a lot of runs or when you're pitching great, you don't put up runs. Hopefully we can make everything click and get both going at the same time."