WASHINGTON -- Pick your explanation, whichever one suits you best. The Cardinals' defense didn't make plays it should have made. The bullpen didn't shut the door. The offense didn't manage a hit after the fifth inning. The manager didn't get a struggling reliever out of the game quickly enough.
The thing is, it doesn't matter which was the main reason. They all added up to the kind of loss that contending teams can't afford to suffer. The Cardinals squandered two home runs, an opportunistic fifth-inning rally and a strong start from Jaime Garcia in an agonizing 8-6 defeat to the Nationals.
"One got away from [Garcia] and from us," manager Tony La Russa said.
St. Louis took a 6-1 lead into the sixth inning, only to watch it evaporate over two ugly frames. The Cardinals have lost four in a row for the first time in 2011, though they remain tied atop the National League Central thanks to a similarly galling loss suffered by the Brewers.
More alarming: The Cardinals have scored at least five runs in a losing cause 11 times on the young season. By comparison, that happened 15 times in the entire 2010 season. Last year, St. Louis won 80 percent of the games in which it scored at least five. This season, they've won about 68 percent of those games.
Garcia departed with a 6-2 advantage, having thrown 107 pitches over six effective but difficult innings. He worked around some shaky defense, including two errors by shortstop Ryan Theriot and three other balls to shortstop that were scored as infield hits.
"Stuff happens," Garcia said. "It's nothing you can control. I don't know if you guys [reporters] were watching the game. I was making pitches."
For the most part, Garcia limited or even entirely prevented damage on those plays, but the extra outs added up and contributed to his relatively short outing. That, in turn, contributed to an extremely unpleasant seventh in which three relievers combined to suffer through a six-run Washington rally.
La Russa called on Miguel Batista to open the seventh. Batista retired the first batter, Jerry Hairston Jr., but it took a running catch by Lance Berkman on a liner to get the out. Jayson Werth walked, and Ian Desmond reached when Albert Pujols ranged far to his right rather than letting Skip Schumaker field a high chopper.
Ryan Zimmerman doubled to make it 6-3, and Mike Morse's RBI grounder cut the lead to two runs. Two more singles made it a one-run game with two on, and Batista was gone. Things didn't get any better. Lefty Trever Miller hit Roger Bernadina with a pitch and then let go a wild pitch for the tying run. Jason Motte walked in the go-ahead run and allowed a single to make it 8-6 before escaping the inning.
Five runs were charged to Batista, who took the defeat.
"He just had a bad day," La Russa said. "The first out, ball was hit hard. You can't walk a guy, I don't care who it is. If he doesn't walk him, he gets him out, then the chop is an out. He made a bad pitch to Zimmerman, made a good pitch to Morse, and then got the ball up and out over the plate to the second baseman and the catcher. It was a nightmare."
Motte, at least, deserved better. Laynce Nix worked a tremendous at-bat against him, battling through 11 pitches before drawing the free pass. Then Werth poked a single on an 0-2 pitch for the last blow in the rally.
"That was a big at-bat," Werth said of Nix's battle. "That guy was throwing hard -- he has good stuff. Coming off the bench, for him to get the job done there was huge. That was probably the biggest at-bat of the night. It was the difference in the game."
The meltdown spoiled a fine offensive night for the visitors, or at least a fine five innings. Pujols drilled a two-run homer in the first and Berkman added a solo shot in the fourth. The Cards made Washington pay for failing to turn a double play in the fifth, eking out three runs from an inning that should have been over without a tally on the board.
Yet they couldn't add on against a young and hard-throwing Washington bullpen. The Cardinals fell to 38-30 on the year.
"This one hurts," Berkman said. "It's one of those games that, during the course of the year, they happen, but you never feel good about it. We let it get away from us and we shouldn't."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.