St. Louis Cardinals fans, dust off your sirens, prepare your white flags, and clutch your shiny red buttons.

For the first time since 2003, it’s panic time.

After sweeping the Reds in Cincinnati to take a one game lead in the division and looking like prime pennant contenders in the National League, the Cardinals have been, well, terrible.

Against mediocre competition (their opponents over that span are a combined 355-443), St. Louis has gone 5-12, getting swept by Houston, and losing series to last place Washington and Pittsburgh, as well as the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers.

Meanwhile, the Reds have beaten down on a weak schedule of their own, going 13-4 and taking a commanding eight game lead in the National League Central. St. Louis also trails Philadelphia by five games in the Wild Card race.

So how did it get this way, and who’s to blame?

The biggest blame can be placed on the offense. Since the Reds series, the Cardinals have averaged 4.2 runs, gone deep 0.9 times, and struck out 6.4 times per game. They have scored three runs or less in 10 of their 12 losses. They’ve made fourth and fifth starters look like aces. In fact, two of their wins came against former Cy Young winners Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum. However, they’ve been handled by John Lannan, J.A. Happ, Madison Bumgarner, and Dave Bush, among others.

The pitching, which has been shouldering the team most of the season, has snapped under all that weight. Staff ace Adam Wainwright has lost three straight starts for the first time in his career. Co-ace Chris Carpenter has been roughed up as well, losing his past two starts. The only bright spot on the staff has been Jaime Garcia, who has gone given up just five runs in his three starts since Cincinnati, going 2-1 over that span.

Maybe some of the blame can be placed on the front office. After all, they traded Ryan Ludwick in an effort to acquire Jake Westbrook, basically swapping a slugging outfielder for a starting pitcher, something they already have a plethora of. They traded a need for a luxury. In fact, this trade may be the root of the problem. Granted, Ludwick has cooled off considerably since moving to PetCo Park, a notorious pitchers’ haven. His average has dropped to .221, and he his OPS has dropped to .649, well below his .280/.350/.512 line from 2007-09 with the Cardinals. Conversely, Westbrook is 1-3 with a 4.03 ERA. However, his WHIP, H/9, BB/9, and HR/9 are all lower than they’ve ever been, while his strikeout rates are also career bests. While Westbrook has been good, he just hasn’t helped the Cardinals win.

The final piece to this trade is not a player who departed or arrived, but Jon Jay, who took over for Ludwick in right field. Since the trade, Jay has batted .266, with just one home run. Now that his abnormal .440+ BAbip has mellowed to .308 for the month, we have a truer sense of what type of player Jay is: a backup outfielder, one that the organization placed too much faith in by trading their regular starter because they though Jay could handle the job.

However, here’s the real kicker. In their 17 game slump, St. Louis has won games by three, four, nine, eight, and two runs. However, only one of their losses has been by more than three runs. That gives them a Pythagorean Win-Loss Record of 9-8 over that span, a far cry from their actual 5-12 record. All this shows us is that they’ve lost several close games.

In fact, they’ve left 7.6 runners on base each game, as opposed to a 7.1 number for the rest of the season (which includes the 20-inning game in which the Cardinals left 22 runners on). Here’s where it gets bad. Ryan Ludwick bats .389 with runners in scoring position, and .308 with two outs, and an amazing .429 with two outs and RISP. Jon Jay, by comparison, bats .356 with runners in scoring position. Jay also bats .189 with two strikes. The difference was never more visible than today, when Jay grounded out to the pitcher with the bases loaded to end the Cardinals’ scoring threat.

Can we say that Ludwick would’ve gotten a hit there? Not for sure. But with Ryan Ludwick, the Cardinals would not be leaving 7.6 men on base each game. Whether you blame the front office, the offense, Jay in particular, or Tony LaRussa, whose lack of a consistent lineup card and insistence to keep Colby Rasmus out of the lineup has infuriated Cardinals fans and writers, one thing is clear: if they don’t turn this around soon, they’ll be watching the playoffs from their couches.

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