The St. Louis Cardinals made an impressive run to move from third place in the National League Central division to out front with a healthy lead in only a couple of weeks.
It was amazing how quickly the team tightened up with better defense, timely offense and excellent pitching to storm past the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers.
But, as exciting as that was, it is equally disturbing how the Redbirds have just as unexpectedly reverted back to the sloppy play that was the hallmark of a mediocre first three-quarters of the season.
The Cardinals defense was atrocious both Tuesday and Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds, a team mired in fourth place with nothing to play for that now stands on the verge of beating St. Louis three games to one in a four-game set.
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Second baseman Kolten Wong has been a primary culprit. After scoring a gutsy run in the opener of the series with hustle, he flubbed an easy ground ball in the second game that should have been turned for a double play. He had a chance at a somewhat more difficult ball in the third game. But it was a ball that a decent major league infielder should have been able to handle and turn into two outs.
Wong was hardly the only Cardinals to blame, however. A ball dropped in between him and right fielder Oscar Taveras Wednesday. Wong covered about four times much ground as Taveras, so it seems that with any sort of decent effort Taveras could have easily caught the ball. But, instead of taking charge of the play, Taveras seemed content to let Wong do the tougher job.
Starting pitcher John Lackey wasn't much help either.
Making his eighth St. Louis start, Lackey was handed a 2-0 lead when he took the mound in the bottom of the first. So, naturally, he walked the Cincinnati lead-off hitter. He escaped from the first frame with a 2-1 lead. But then he threw an awful hanging curve ball to Ryan Ludwick in the second to tie the contest at two. When he started the third inning he'd allowed four hits and a pair of walks while striking out one. But things would go from bad to worse as he promptly got himself ejected for bickering with the umpire over balls and strikes.
Lackey's dismissal put the Birds in a tough spot of having to get seven innings of relief instead of having a guy who is supposed to be a big-game pitcher on the hill. But, frankly, reliever Tyler Lyons ended up pitching better than the guy he had to replace.
The Cardinals' poor effort cost them as the Pirates and Brewers both won their games to cut the advantage to 3 1/2 games over Pittsburgh and 4 games over Milwaukee.
I sure hope the Birds can pull their act together Thursday and salvage a tie in the Cincinnati series. This season isn't over yet and the Cardinals can't coast or they're going to end up scratching their head on Oct. 1, wondering what happened.