ST. LOUIS - You want to know just how surreal what should have been a celebratory September for the St. Louis Cardinals has turned?
Before last night's game, Cards manager Tony La Russa weighed his team's six-game losing streak against the ace he had in one hand in the form of Chris Carpenter and the slowly reviving offense he had in the other and declared:
"I'd like to get five tonight for Carp and take my chances."
The Cards did get five runs. Problem is, the Padres got six off Carpenter.
Before you could say implosion, the Cardinals had lost, again, their 7-5 defeat another lesson in how to lose a grip on what had once seemed a sure National League Central title.
With five games left, the Cardinals, who led the division by as many as seven games as recently as last Wednesday, now hold but a 11/2-game lead over piping-hot Houston.
"We're not OK because we can't make enough happen to win some games," said La Russa, no longer content to sugarcoat things. "But," he added, "we're still alive. Understand that... . You play hard, you turn things around. And we're playing hard."
The Astros, winners of seven straight after a 7-4 victory in Pittsburgh last night, have chopped five games off the Cardinals' lead since Friday. If that weren't alarming enough for the Cards, their miseries have allowed the Cincinnati Reds - winners of six of 10 - to climb to within 21/2 games.
Cardinals losses. Astros wins. A Reds revival. It's the stuff legendary comebacks and collapses are made of. And all are fueling concerns hereabouts the way oxygen feeds fire.
"One of the toughest parts about this game is the harder you try, the less you perform," catcher Gary Bennett said.
"We have one of two choices: Push back harder or give up. I don't think there's any give-up in this clubhouse."
Still, you can't blame Cardinals fans if they want to know: What in the name of Gene Mauch is going on here?
Yes. The 1964 Phillies and their skipper's name are being invoked in the St. Louis media for reasons other than fond memories of the Cardinals team that took advantage of that historic collapse. All because of an 8-15 September free fall.
Carpenter (15-8) was supposed to end all that. And he seemed braced to, carrying a 5-2 lead into the top of the seventh. It was a lead the ace, who had gone 5-0 with an 0.90 ERA in his previous six home starts, could not hold.
When he gave up four in the seventh, the team that was shaken by four straight losses in Houston over the weekend was left even woozier. Comebacks and close games (the Cards have lost eight of their last nine one-run games) are taking a toll.
Witness La Russa after Monday's 6-5 heartbreaker to the Padres: "It's a really rough stretch. We're so close to breaking through."
Or breaking down.
Third baseman Scott Rolen, for instance, continued to struggle, his slump stretching to 2 for his last 28 last night.
"He can't be asked any more often by trainers and coaches if he's OK," La Russa said before Rolen went 1 for 4. "Some people say he's tired. Some people say he's hurt."
"I'm OK," Rolen quietly declared before the game. "We're getting down to the end, but I am going to go out there and keep grinding, and hopefully good things will happen."
Rolen had been charged with protecting Albert Pujols - until last night, when La Russa dropped Rolen from cleanup to fifth behind Pujols and Juan Encarnacion.
"Fourth is an extra responsibility he doesn't need right now," La Russa said.
Just trying to win a game is responsibility enough. Right now, even that seems more than any Cardinal can handle.