ST. LOUIS — The bright side for the St. Louis Cardinals is they are 14-10 and their starting pitching has been exceptional.
The down side is their bullpen's bloated ERA of 5.93, which absorbed another hit Sunday in a 9-0 loss to Pittsburgh.
But the offense, expected to be the strength of the Cardinals, isn't firing, either, with a .246 batting average, a .309 on-base percentage and a .374 slugging percentage. St. Louis has scored three runs or fewer 11 times and has been blanked three times.
But there's no concern from within.
"I feel like over the last few years, we've had a pretty consistent offense," said first baseman Allen Craig, batting .261 with a team-high 18 RBIs. "It's the first month of the season. Guys are still trying to get going and what not. I feel like we've done an OK job, but there's definitely room for improvement, for sure."
The Cardinals managed just three hits, all singles, Sunday against left-handers Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson as they surrendered first place to the Pirates (15-10).
"It'll happen," manager Mike Matheny said, showing no alarm. "We've just got to keep going about it. It's still the first month of the season here. They've just got to stay within themselves and be who they know they can be.
"We're always making minor adjustments, but those numbers are going to equal out by the end of the season. A few guys just need some flashes of what they know they can do. ... That potent offense is still sitting there. We've seen glimpses of it (and) I believe we'll see it through the long haul. It's no time to panic right now."
Matt Carpenter was cleared to play by the medical staff Sunday after he injured his left oblique with an awkward swing in the seventh inning Saturday. Carpenter was 0-for-4.
Carpenter was lifted for pinch-hitter Jermaine Curtis in the ninth inning Saturday and was examined after the game.
No structural damage was found, so Carpenter was back in the lineup Sunday, playing second base and batting leadoff.
"I feel good, so I'm back in there," said Carpenter, who began Sunday leading the National League in runs scored with 21. "Obviously, I felt something; it was an awkward swing, and I was stretching the rest of the game. But I didn't think it was anything serious.
"When you pull an oblique or hurt an oblique, you'll know."
Matheny didn't know what to expect Sunday when he arrived at the ballpark. But he knew Saturday he wasn't about to risk Carpenter's health, so he replaced him with Curtis.
"I didn't have a lot of information except I watched him the half-inning before and I watched him in the field, and you could see he was stretching," Matheny said. "I watched him go up on deck and he was making movements, so I called him over while he was on deck and talked to him and found that there was something there.
"Each guy's 'something there' is different, too. (But) the trainers and I had seen enough to be concerned. ... You can't risk losing a guy for two weeks if there's a chance we can pull him out for one at-bat."
Injured closer Jason Motte played catch from about 70 feet on Sunday and is holding on to hope he can pitch again this season despite having a torn ligament in his elbow.
"It felt good," Motte said. "If it wouldn't have felt good, I don't think we would have moved forward. We'll see how it feels and do it all over again (Monday). We're still not at the point where I'm (firing) them in there. ... We're taking baby steps."
The Cardinals have said Tommy John surgery is under consideration for Motte, a logical move for a pitcher with a torn ligament. But Motte said all ligaments are not created equal in terms of appearance and how they perform.
"What we do pitching-wise, (doctors) don't really know what a normal elbow is supposed to look like," Motte said. "Mine may be better-looking than some guys that are actually out there throwing right now. It's what they're accustomed to, and they may not have pain with it.
"I was talking to one of the doctors in spring training. He said, literally, the amount of tension and the amount of pressure that pitchers put on their elbow, (the ligament) should rip every single time. It's exerting more pressure than it can technically even handle --every single throw."
Freese turns 30
David Freese celebrated his 30th birthday Sunday.
In three previous birthday starts, Freese had been 6-for-12 with one home run and four RBIs.
But Freese was 0-for-3 with a walk Sunday and as his average slipped to .178.
"Whenever guys start going through those tough times, they've got to back into the archives of what got them out of it," Matheny said. "Usually, less is more, where they're taking a simpler approach.
"He's having trouble picking up the ball right now. You can see him jumping. That happens to everybody throughout the season. If you don't pick up it up, you don't have a chance. He's got some work to do."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.