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Don't blame the offense for the Cardinals' swoon

It’s easy to look at the Cardinals’ woeful May record and blame injuries to key offensive players Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran and Jon Jay for the sudden downturn in the club’s fortunes.

But, while the offense isn’t what it used to be before the heart of the order went into the sick bay, it’s not the hitters’ fault this team has gone bad. It’s that the weakened offense is no longer able to compensate for a woefully inadequate bullpen.

The Redbirds simply bashed other teams into submission with their bats in April. They’d score some runs and get a lead. If the other team dared to try to catch up, the Birds would simply score some more and finish them off.

The Cardinals won 14 games through May 2 by three runs or more. In the first weeks of the season, the bullpen simply wasn’t tested. Since in three weeks since then, they’ve won only four games by three runs or more. And there have been a lot more than that in recent days in which the Cardinals held a slim lead late in the game only to see the bullpenners cough it up.

Six members of the St. Louis bullpen have ERAs over the 4.00 mark -- including the released J.C. Romero and the injured Kyle McClellan. Simply put, relief pitchers can’t give up runs every other inning they pitch if a team is going to have a chance to hold on in close games.

Last season an infusion of fresh arms came in like the cavalry to save the Birds from a bad bullpen. So there’s always hope of turning things around. But the bad news is that the guys who saved the day last season are the ones stinking it up now.

Fernando Salas, who did the bulk of the closer’s duties after Ryan Franklin flamed out in 2011, is 0-2 with a 5.52 ERA. Eduardo Sanchez, who was a valuable set-up man last season, has a 6.75 ERA this year after starting the 2012 campaign in the minors. Marc Rzepczynski, who was picked up from Toronto in the Colby Rasmus trade, walked the only man he faced on four pitches in his most recent outing. And his opportunity before that, he grooved a 3-0 pitch to Scott Van Slyke to yield a game-losing homer against the Dodgers. Post season sensation Jason Motte blew a save opportunity Monday night and was saved by Tyler Greene’s home run the following inning. He’s coughed up three leads while converting seven saves.

Craig ought to be back in the line-up soon and, hopefully, Jay won’t be too far behind. But the Cardinals need to get better in the bullpen if they’re going to start winning close games. A team can’t be one dimensional and realistically hope to be a champion.

Speaking of the injured offensive players, I sure hope we haven’t seen the last of Lance Berkman in a Cardinals uniform.

While the Cardinals have tried to paint an optimistic picture of the knee injury that has put him back on the disabled list, Berkman seemed a lot less hopeful that he could return in the estimated 6-8 weeks the team quoted.

Berkman said he thinks there is instability in his knee that would indicate a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And if that’s the case, he’s probably done for the season.

That would be an awful blow to the Redbirds not just in terms of hits and runs -- but also in terms of leadership. Like Will Clark and Larry Walker before him, Berkman was a bona fide major league superstar when he arrived in St. Louis to rejuvenate a sagging career. They were guys that Busch Stadium fans loved to hate because of all the damage they did to the local nine.

I would have liked to see Berkman play out the last few years of his career in St. Louis and then maybe join the coaching staff when he was through. But, even if this was to be his last year with the Cardinals, I would have preferred to see Berkman carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders than helped off the grounds because he couldn’t walk on his own.

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