ST. LOUIS -- After a dream series in Milwaukee, reality showed its unwelcome face at Busch Stadium over the weekend. The Cardinals dropped the finale of a three-game series against the Reds on Sunday, falling 9 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central with 22 games remaining on the schedule.
The Cards amassed baserunner after baserunner, but struggled all afternoon to convert them into runs against Bronson Arroyo and the Cincinnati bullpen. They fell to 6-12 in extra innings on the year. St. Louis gained three games on the Brewers in Milwaukee last week, but the division leaders got two of those games back over the weekend thanks to the Cards' series loss and a Brewers sweep in Houston.
Eleven hits were not enough for the Cardinals, as they went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base. They did not draw a walk all afternoon and didn't score after the fourth inning.
So while Fernando Salas was charged with the loss, the game likely should never have gone to extra innings in the first place.
"I don't think our offense is feeling too good," manager Tony La Russa said. "To go scoreless like we did -- I think it's an aggravating or upsetting offensive day for our team. I'm sure they don't feel too good about the at-bats that we took and the lack of productivity."
Little-known Juan Francisco delivered the game-winning hit, capping a mini-uprising after Salas got two outs without a baserunner to start the 10th. The lefty-swinging third baseman poked a two-out RBI single to center field off Salas, following a Yonder Alonso single and a Drew Stubbs walk.
The loss also dropped the Cardinals 8 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the race for the NL Wild Card. The Brewers and Braves visit Busch Stadium next week, the Cards' final head-to-head meetings with each club.
Starter Edwin Jackson kept a strong run going, recovering nicely after a rocky beginning, but didn't get enough support to get a win. Brandon Phillips led off the game with a single and Edgar Renteria immediately made it 2-0 with a home run, but from there Jackson kept Cincinnati off the board.
"A spinning slider, and he did what he was supposed to do with it," Jackson said of the homer. "He hit it hard."
The Reds, like the Cardinals, had plenty of chances against the starter after their early runs. They put two on with one out and loaded the bases with two outs in the second. They had runners at second and third with two outs in the fourth before Francisco was thrown out trying to score when a pitch got away from catcher Gerald Laird. Overall, Cincinnati stranded a runner in scoring position in six different innings.
Jackson has allowed two or fewer earned runs in six of his eight starts with the Cardinals, and three or fewer in all but one game since he was traded from Chicago by way of Toronto. It was the fifth time in eight starts that he lasted seven innings, and that has been as valuable as anything. The Cardinals entered Sunday with their bullpen a bit taxed, and Jackson removed some of the strain.
However, Arroyo matched him with a very strong start of his own. Like Jackson, he looked shaky early, and like Jackson, he frequently dodged trouble. But he survived eight innings with a tie score intact before handing things over to his bullpen. Jose Arredondo and Francisco Cordero pitched shutout ball to bring it home for the Reds.
"I didn't have a whole lot to start the game as it was and then [got] hit so early in the game so hard," Arroyo said. "To be able to get out of some innings that I had -- less than two outs with runners in scoring position and men on third base -- they were huge outs.
"... It's been one of those years where it seems like the other team pulls out those 3-2 victories late in a ballgame like that. For us to steal one like that is nice."
The Cardinals came close a few times. Albert Pujols sent a ball deep to the track in the first, and Rafael Furcal sent a screamer up the middle with two on in the second that Arroyo stopped. Lance Berkman drove a couple of hard liners to right field.
The end result, though, was zeros, and a loss for St. Louis.
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.