The on-again, off-again St. Louis Cardinals again are in off mode as they head to Wrigley Field for a three-game weekend series against the Chicago Cubs.
As has happened so many times this season, the Cardinals appeared ready for takeoff after winning the first two games of their homestand against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But a 4-3 loss in the finale began the downward cycle that was followed by 7-2 and 3-0 defeats to the Tampa Bay Rays that dropped the Cardinals 2 1/2 games behind Milwaukee.
"When you look at what we came up against with the Dodgers, almost taking all three of those and really feeling pretty excited about our offense being able to put together some good offensive days ... The last two days, they just had our number," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
"But we'll jump right back on it. We've got a day to think about it and we'll head to Chicago, hopefully, with some better results. A really good start (to the homestand) and a rough finish."
The Cardinals fell to 1-6 against interleague opponents at Busch Stadium this season, and they are 30-38 against American League foes since the start of 2006 when the new ballpark opened.
"I've got no way to explain that," Matheny said. "We saw this team in Tampa and it looked like a completely different team than what we see now. They're playing with a lot of confidence; they're getting those big hits."
St. Louis' lone interleague victory at home this season was May 27 when Lance Lynn, the tough-luck loser Wednesday, defeated the New York Yankees 6-0. Since then, the Cardinals have been outscored in interleague home games 31-13.
In the series against the Rays, the Cardinals struck out 28 times. Fifteen of those came Wednesday against starter Alex Cobb (10) and relievers Brandon Boxberger (two) and Jake McGee (three).
The Cardinals are 5-4 this season against the Cubs, who reside in last place in the National League Central. The Cubs won two of three May 2-4 at Wrigley Field.
Joe Kelly (2-1, 2.84 ERA) will oppose Travis Wood (7-9, 5.12 ERA) in the series opener at 3:05 p.m. Friday.
Kelly will make his third start since coming off the disabled list from a strained left hamstring July 11.
Kelly, who has not allowed an earned run against the Cubs in three starts and 17 1/3 innings, had a no-decision against them April 11 in St. Louis, surrendering one unearned run in six innings of a game the Cardinals lost 6-3 in 11 innings.
Shelby Miller (7-8, 4.25 ERA) rejoins the rotation at 3:05 p.m. Saturday when he faces Jake Arrieta (5-2, 2.12 ERA). In the finale at 1:20 p.m. Sunday, Adam Wainwright (12-5, 2.02 ERA) will face Chicago rookie Kyle Hendricks (1-0, 2.77 ERA).
Matheny continues to evaluate the Cardinals' right-field dilemma. Allen Craig, batting just .244 with seven home runs and 44 RBIs, figures to get the start Friday against the left-handed Wood. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.
Matheny is waiting and hoping for Craig's level of production to more closely resemble what he has done in the past, balancing that with the need for rookie Oscar Taveras to get playing time.
Matheny said Tuesday that the Cardinals are not in the "development business" at the major-league level, but the left-handed-hitting Taveras, their longtime No. 1 prospect, clearly needs to play to tap his vast potential.
Craig, who has been one of the best hitters in the game with runners in scoring position, is batting just .256 this season in those situations. The Cardinals, who batted .330 with runners in scoring position last season, are at .244 this year --13th in the NL --after a 3-for-35 spiral.
This will be the final weekend of games before the nonwaiver trade deadline July 31. The Cardinals are hopeful of adding a pitcher to their rotation, which has been hit by a season-ending injury to Jaime Garcia and the loss of Michael Wacha until September.
St. Louis will remain linked to Tampa Bay left-hander David Price, the 2012 Cy Young Award-winner in the AL. The Cardinals obviously would love to add price to their rotation, but the Rays are sure to demand top prospects, possibly Taveras, in any deal.
Making the trade seem less likely is Tampa Bay's recent play. The Rays have won 25 of their last 36 games to climb within seven games of Baltimore in the AL East. They are just four games out in the wild-card race.