Originally posted on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 9/3/13
Mike Matheny was talking about Adam Wainwright, but could he just as easily have been talking about his entire St. Louis Cardinals team? "He's searching right now," Matheny said to reporters after the Cards' 7-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Monday. "He doesn't have the same feel he had earlier."  Wainwright was rocked for six runs and 10 hits (two of them home runs) over six innings, posting his second consecutive poor start against the Reds. Though Monday's effort was an improvement over his last outing, during which he lasted only two innings, giving up nine runs and eight hits.  Maybe it's just a bad couple of starts for Wainwright. Prior to his past two starts, he allowed three runs or fewer in four straight appearances. Perhaps the Reds are just seeing the ball really well from him right now. (In his first start against Cincinnati this year, Wainwright allowed two runs and five hits over seven innings.)  But Wainwright has performed badly enough for the Cards to consider the possibility that he's tipping pitches. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold reported, Wainwright pitched better after changing something that could have made a difference against Cincinnati hitters in his final couple of innings on Monday. However, if Wainwright struggles in his next start — scheduled against the Dodgers — we'll know that it wasn't just the Reds noticing a tip in his delivery.  As for Wainwright's team, the Cardinals are reeling a bit as well. With Monday's defeat, St. Louis has lost four of its previous five games and now sits one game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for second place in the NL Central. That stretch includes losing two of three to the Pirates at PNC Park.  The Cards haven't just lost those games either. They've been pounded. The two losses in Pittsburgh were for a combined score of 12-1. They lost by a combined score of 17-2 in their past two defeats to the Reds.  We've already detailed Wainwright's struggles over the past week. How did the Cardinals' starting pitchers do in those other two losses? Shelby Miller didn't make it out of the fifth inning on Friday, allowing five runs on eight hits. On Saturday, it was Lance Lynn on the receiving end of a beating, giving up seven runs and 10 hits over four innings. Lynn has been having a rough time of late, allowing four runs or more and at least eight hits in his past four starts.  St. Louis is also dealing with some injuries, though having banged-up players could certainly be expected after five months of baseball. Catcher Yadier Molina is suffering from a wrist injury that took him out of Monday's game and could be related to a problem he developed during the World Baseball Classic. Additionally, outfielder Carlos Beltran has been sidelined the past two games with back spasms. Sitting Beltran out could be more of a precautionary measure against him wearing down, however.  Meanwhile, the Pirates were the big movers before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. First, the Bucs added a much needed reinforcement for their outfield, nabbing Marlon Byrd (along with catcher John Buck). Then GM Neal Huntington shored up first base, bringing in Justin Morneau to help against right-handed pitching. Those additions should help a lineup that ranks in the middle of the NL in runs scored.  Of course, the Cards also made a move at the waiver trade deadline, picking up reliever John Axford. While he's not the same pitcher who racked up 46 saves and a 1.95 ERA in 2011, Axford does bring strikeout stuff to the back end of the St. Louis bullpen, averaging nearly nine Ks per nine innings.  Would a starting pitcher have been a better acquisition for the Cardinals? That argument could certainly be made, considering the recent struggles of Wainwright and Lynn. But adding Axford does allow St. Louis to move Michael Wacha into the starting rotation. He'll start Tuesday night against the Reds. Wacha has pitched well since getting called up from the minors in August. In seven appearances for the month, he compiled a 2.87 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 15.2 innings. As a starter, Wacha has a 4.37 ERA in four appearances, but that number is skewed by giving up six runs in 4.2 innings on June 4. He gave up a combined five runs in his other three starts this season.  Should all of this give the Cardinals and their fans reason to worry about their recent stumble? St. Louis has three more games remaining against the Reds in this week's series. Then the Cards host the Pirates for a three-game set. Continuing struggles could push St. Louis further down the NL Central standings. That shouldn't affect their postseason chances (currently 99.8 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus), but an extended swoon could tighten up the NL wild-card race and give some hope to the Diamondbacks and Nationals.  Yet after the Cardinals finish off their matchups with the other NL Central contenders, their schedule should provide a pretty smooth ride through the end of the season. The Cards have two series against the Brewers, and also face the Mariners, Rockies, Nationals and Cubs in September. Only one of those clubs has a record over .500, and the Nats are only one game above that mark.  What about the competition? The Pirates have a three-game series at Texas and six games left against the Reds for the rest of September. In addition to their six games versus Pittsburgh, the Reds face the Dodgers on their remaining schedule.  In a race as close as the NL Central currently is, one series against a top postseason contender down the stretch could make the difference in who wins the division and who has to play in the one-game wild-card playoff. The situation could become even more frenzied if the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds all end up tied at the end of the regular season, as Baseball Nation's Grant Brisbee explains. "If there's a three-way tie in the NL Central standings, there would be a tiebreaker game, with the loser becoming a Wild Card," Brisbee writes. "Then there would be a tiebreaker game with the winner of the first tiebreaker against the team that hasn't played a tiebreaker yet. The winner of that game would be the Central champ, and the loser would play a wild-card game against the other loser." That would be fun, especially considering how uncompetitive the NL playoff race has been for at least the past month. But it would be torturous for Pirates fans who have gone 21 years without a winning team, let alone a playoff bid. Do we want to put those people through such an ordeal? Pittsburgh has suffered for too long, though this would certainly be earning their way into the postseason. As if returning to the playoffs wouldn't already be memorable enough.  Such a scenario wouldn't be very enjoyable for Cardinals fans either. St. Louis has spent much of the season looking like the best team in MLB. Going from that to fighting for postseason life in a one-game playoff would obviously be quite a change in fortune. But if the Cards don't begin playing better against its closest competitors for the NL Central title, that is exactly what this team will face in October. 

This article first appeared on The Outside Corner and was syndicated with permission.

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