The St. Louis Cardinals couldn't have picked a worse time to fall into a scoring funk.
Their 3-1 loss to Boston in Game 5 of the World Series Monday puts the Birds in a 3-2 hole as they head back to Beantown.
The Cardinals have scored two earneds run in 20 innings going back to Game 3, and managed just 10 hits the last two games. In that span, they've batted .161 (10-for-62).
"It's frustrating," Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter said after the loss. "These guys have played all season for this chance, and I don't know if there's any thyme or reason for it. Part of it is we're facing really good pitching, and we have the entire postseason. But you can't make excuses; you've got to find a way to get it done."
The task looms large on Wednesday, when rookie right-hander Michael Wacha (4-0, 1.00 ERA in four starts this postseason) tries to extend the Cardinals' season.
"It starts with a mentality that it's a great challenge," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "It's a great opportunity for us to go and prove the kind of team we are -- as far as how tough we are mentally, and I think that's where it begins.
"After that it comes down to execution. We've got to have Michael come out and throw a big game."
The Cardinals have managed one run on nine hits in 15 1/3 innings against Boston left-hander Jon Lester. He threw 7 2/3 shutout innings in the Sox' 8-1 Game 1 win, and gave up one run on four hits in 7 2/3 innings Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, in both starts against Jon we haven't found a way to figure it out," Carpenter said. "Part of that is him pitching really well, and part of it is us not making adjustments. It is what it is. You're up there and you're trying to find the approach that works. You get in between a little bit and sometimes that can happen.
"You got a guy as good as he is, you've got to be on your 'A' game. If you've got any chink in your armor, he'll expose you. But that's where we're at."
Wasn't this World Series supposed to go this way? Especially one matching two 97-win teams with strong pitching staffs?
"I don't think (we're) pressing," Carpenter said. "I think it's a combination of a couple things, one, (these are) the two best teams in baseball going at it. They've got a good pitching staff and we've got a good pitching staff. Somebody is going to win those battles.
"Pitching has pretty much dominated this postseason thus far. And in those situations things are tough. That's not to make excuses, that's just the way it is."
Game 5 was by far the best-played of the series so far, with none of the pratfalls that characterized the first four games:
* Three Cardinals errors and a wild pitch preceded all the Boston runs in the 8-1 opener.
* A daffy throw to third by Boston led to the Cards' winning run in their 4-2 Game 2 victory.
* Another misguided toss to third by Boston brought on the obstruction ruling in the Redbirds' 5-4 win in Game 3.
* And the Cards ended Game 4 Sunday like no other contest in World Series history: By getting pinch-runner Kolten Wong picked off at first base for the final out.
Both teams pushed the knucklehead stuff to the side for Game 5, an old-fashioned pitching duel won by Lester (2-0, 0.59 ERA this series) over Adam Wainwright (0-2, 4.50) in a rematch of Game 1.
Simply put, Boston's top starter has outpitched the Cards' ace the two times they've met.
That leaves the Cards' Fall Classic fate in the hands of Wacha, who must stave off the Red Sox to get to a Game 7 Thursday.
As good as Wacha has been, it won't matter if the Cardinals don't get their offense untracked.
"I think it's just a hard game," Matheny said. "You go through periods where you're going to have success, everything feels right, and there's other times you're just fighting to find it. We have a couple guys fighting to find it and other guys taking some good at-bats.
"It's not really that different than any other period through the season. Very seldom do you have everybody all clicking at the same time."
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the Belleville News-Democrat since their playoff run in 1985. He can be reached at (618) 239-2512, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.