ST. LOUIS -- The runaway Cardinals bandwagon hit a nasty pothole on Thursday afternoon. A heavily-worked bullpen suffered a breakdown in an extremely disheartening and costly 8-6 loss to the Mets at Busch Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
Manager Tony La Russa cycled through three relievers in a six-run Mets ninth as St. Louis saw a four-game winning streak come to an end. The Cards had led, 6-1, through seven innings.
De facto closer Jason Motte, pitching for the ninth time in 14 days, was charged with the first four runs, though he was also hurt by a Rafael Furcal error that should have been one or possibly two outs. Marc Rzepczynski permitted a hard-luck, broken-bat single to the only batter he faced. Fernando Salas was reached for the two-run double that tied the game at 6 as well as the two-run single that gave the Mets the lead.
La Russa argued that fatigue was not a factor in the implosion, and Motte said he felt no different than he has all year. However, it was the fourth straight game in which Motte was charged with a run, after being scored upon in two of his previous 39.
"No," La Russa said when asked about potential effects of Motte's workload. "He may be getting distracted by somebody thinking he's the closer. He should keep his fine focus on, just pitch as good as I can. He's not the closer. He's the closer a lot of times. He doesn't need to be distracted with that nonsense. He's not the closer for next year. That's just not in his best interest or ours to distract guys.
"I think he just couldn't find the plate today, something that he [normally] does really well."
And in fact, it was an uncharacteristic showing by the right-hander, who usually has exemplary control. A walk started the deluge. Nick Evans hit a potential double-play ball to Furcal, but Furcal bobbled it and couldn't record even one out. After a fly to center, Motte walked the next two batters, including one with the bases loaded, and was removed.
Motte demurred on a question as to whether he could have benefited from an extra day of rest.
"The phone rang, I pitched, I felt fine," he said. "I'll take the ball, whenever. I'll go out there and I'll throw. It's just one of those things. It's not really my call. I'll go out there and throw."
Even after Motte came out of the game, the Cardinals still held a three-run lead. Jose Reyes singled off Rzepczynski to make it 6-4. The lefty gave way to Salas, who allowed the tying and go-ahead hits.
Salas had pitched four times in five days before a day off on Wednesday, and La Russa said he had hoped to avoid using him. That was one factor, he said, in going to Motte in the first place.
"We have a four-run lead, and we want to close out the win," he said. "You don't want to take any chance about getting something started. That's how I was feeling. And I thought he was a better shot than having to push Salas, who could have used two days off."
Warning signs had been looming around the Cards' bullpen for some time. Motte's results had taken a recent downturn, relative to his brilliance earlier in the year. Salas was pitching for the fifth time in seven days, though he'd gone seven straight games without allowing a run. Rzepczynski was also pitching for the ninth time in 14 games.
"I think we're resting them where we can," La Russa said. "We have [Kyle] McClellan with two days off, he's ready tomorrow. When you screw up, it's not because you're vulnerable, sometimes. Just the other side beats you."
The meltdown spoiled what would have been an enormous win for the Cardinals. They now trail the Braves by two games in the National League Wild Card race with six to play.
Things looked at all dire exactly once before the ninth, and that situation was quickly righted. Holding a 2-0 lead in the fifth, starter Jake Westbrook walked in the first New York run as the heart of the Mets' order came to the plate. Westbrook escaped when Angel Pagan grounded out, and the Redbirds countered quickly.
Albert Pujols drilled a two-out solo homer in the bottom half of the inning to reinstate the two-run lead. That was followed by singles from Lance Berkman, David Freese and Yadier Molina as the Cards made it 4-1 and seemed to salt the game away. RBI hits from David Freese and Tyler Greene in the seventh provided more insurance.
It still wasn't enough, though. A single, an error, a wild pitch and a passed ball provided the Mets with a run against Octavio Dotel in the eighth, before they erupted in the ninth.
"Late in the game, we settled into what we do best, and that is make sure we get something good to hit," said Mets manager Terry Collins. "We came through in the ninth."
After the game, plenty of Cardinals were already looking ahead. While the Braves begin a three-game series in Washington on Friday, the Cardinals host the Cubs over the weekend.
"I didn't expect us to win the rest of the games on our schedule," said Lance Berkman. "We still had a good series, today notwithstanding. We still have an opportunity. We're still right there."
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.