ST. LOUIS The Cardinals finished April with a 14-8 record and will be in first place when the calendar flips to May come Tuesday. But with that comes the sting of several losses similar to Sunday that kept them from having a potentially historic month.
The Cardinals lost 3-2 to the Milwaukee Brewers Sunday, missing on a chance to sweep the division champs by running into the final out at home plate on a botched double-steal attempt.
The puzzling ending came after the Cardinals left 13 runners on base, went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position and saw starter Jaime Garcia potentially forfeit two runs by not getting a bunt down in the second inning and not scoring on a fly ball to center in the fifth.
"When you have that many opportunities, it's hard to swallow that," said manager Mike Matheny.
The Cardinals have already lost four one-run games, adding to the pain of Sunday's late-inning defeat. They suffered a walk-off loss on April 11 in Cincinnati, followed by two more walk-off losses on the last road trip in Chicago despite leading both games going to the bottom of the ninth inning.
A 14-8 record is likely better than most expected the defending champs to have following their whirlwind offseason and everything that comes with winning it all. They've won six of the seven series' they've played, showing an impressive business-like approach to start the year.
But things could look so much better. Instead of having a three game lead in the division, it could be six or seven. As early in the year as it may be, the Cardinals are the only team in the N.L. Central with a winning record. Given a chance to create a significant gap between them and the rest of the pack, the Cardinals have fumbled away several golden opportunities.
And days like Sunday are a perfect example.
The missed chances were plentiful, starting with Garcia's inability to execute a sacrifice bunt in the second inning. With runners at first and second and no out, Garcia allowed the Brewers to get the lead runner at third by bunting the ball too hard back to the pitcher.
Rafael Furcal followed with a hit that scored the runner from second but likely would have scored an additional run had Garcia executed the bunt.
The left-hander then suffered a key base-running blunder in the fifth. With one out and Garcia on third, he broke for home on a fly ball by Matt Holliday to center instead of tagging up. By the time he retreated back to third it was too late to try and score, costing the Cardinals another potential run.
Almost predictable, the Brewers took advantage of the missed chances the next half inning by reaching Garcia for three runs to take a 3-1 lead. The big blow was a two-run, two-out double from catcher Jonathan Lucroy to break the 1-1 tie.
"I didn't get the bunt down, bad base running and didn't execute a pitch when I needed to," Garcia said. "In the Major Leagues, you do that and it's going to cost you a game and it did."
Then came the confusing play in the ninth when the Cardinals put runners at first and third with no outs and trailing by a run. Following a strikeout to David Freese, Matheny put Carlos Beltran in motion from first on an 0-2 pitch to Yadier Molina.
Molina struck out and Beltran stopped between first and second, hoping to get in a run down long enough for speedster Tyler Greene to score from third. But Greene broke late and was thrown out at home plate to end the game.
"He came up and almost threw it and then re-gripped," Greene said of the catcher Lucroy. "He faked like he was going to throw it and I was trying to get a good jump, and the pump fake just threw it off. I was trying to just wait and see for a throw."
Added Matheny, "I'll just say that that play didn't go as planned. We were prepared for that. We wanted it to look different than how it turned out, but ideally we wouldn't be in that situation anyhow. You've got a guy on third base and less than two outs (and couldn't score), but that's the way it works."
Just like that, a promising rally was no more. A promising game, seemingly there for the taking, was no more. And it has an all-too familiar feeling following the game.
The Cardinals open the season by playing 27 of 28 games against the Central Division. Not until a series next week in Arizona will the Cardinals have played more than one game against a team outside their division.
And while a 14-8 record is nothing to be upset about, the Cardinals could realistically be on a nine-game winning streak and have a 19-3 record on the year.
Despite being unable to take advantage of others in the division scuffling out of the gate, the Cardinals aren't ready to complain about their successful month. They've had a better start than most expected and look built for sustained success.
"That's just baseball," said Matt Carpenter. "Some games you are going to lose close ones and some games you are going to blow them out. That's just the way it goes sometimes.
"Obviously you don't try to lose those games but that's baseball. You have days where things don't go your way. We'll keep competing every day and hopefully end up with a lot of wins. Things are going good. I think if we continue to play like we're playing and get guys healthy, we will be in good shape."
Said Freese: "We did what we wanted to. We came out of the gates running and won a ton of series. We're happy about the way we're playing and turn the page from today and keep going. With everything that's put on our shoulders coming into spring training, I think we've done a heck of a job."
And he's right. They have. But without the handful of tough losses like Sunday, the Cardinals could be looking even better.