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10/03/10 6:02 PM ET

Cardinals fall short of expectations in 2010

Shaky performance vs. losing teams halts expected playoff run

ST. LOUIS -- Once again, the Cardinals confounded expectations. Unlike last year, though, that was not good news in 2010.

A team widely predicted to win the National League Central -- perhaps even to run away with the division -- instead limped home in second place, out of the running for all practical purposes with two weeks to play in the season.

It was a bizarre season, one that saw the Cardinals feature serious candidates for the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, and yet have to scratch just to hold onto second place and a winning record. The Redbirds beat good teams, including going 12-6 against the NL Central champion Reds, but struggled all year against second-division clubs, finishing with a losing record against teams with losing records.

The season started with tremendous promise. On May 3, the Cardinals had won eight out of nine and had already stretched out a five-game division lead. But early lineup potency gave way to a fits-and-starts offense, and by May 16, St. Louis was a half-game behind the Reds in the division. The two rivals stayed joined at the hip for months after that. From May 11 through Aug. 18, neither team had more than a three-game lead over the other at any point.

Even then, though, the Cards were riding their starting rotation and getting just enough offense. Adam Wainwright was brilliant, taking another step forward as he establishes himself among the game's truly elite pitchers. On June 4 he finally secured his first big league shutout to put the Cards back in first for the day, and it was just one of many highlights for the right-hander. (More | )

The high point came in August, as St. Louis swept three from the Reds at Great American Ball Park. A team that had appeared to be in trouble put itself back on top of the division with three big wins. That series, of course, was also marred by an Aug. 10 scuffle between the two teams. Jason LaRue suffered a concussion in the fight, an injury that turned out to be career-ending.

From there, not much good happened. The Cardinals stumbled over the next month, falling from first place to just about out of contention, as the offense struggled to score runs while the rotation went from outstanding to merely very good. The trade of Ryan Ludwick for Jake Westbrook helped bolster the starting rotation, but exposed the offense in the process.

The Cardinals finished with a respectable record and a second-place finish, but it was nowhere near where they wanted to be. Now the question becomes how to get the 2011 team back on top.

Record: 86-76, second place in NL Central

Defining moment: A truly odd season for the Cardinals is probably better summed up in long form than in any one moment. They were up, they were down. They beat good teams and lost to cellar-dwellers.

Top 12 moments

However, in retrospect, it's easy to point to the day when things started to turn for the worse. That was Saturday, Aug. 14, in a 3-2 loss to the Cubs at Busch Stadium. At the time, it appeared to be little more than a frustrating bump in the road. It was the Cards' first loss after a four-game win streak that had included a stirring sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati.

Yet on that day, the weakness that would sink the club over the next month was both exposed and exacerbated. An offense that had been torrid for two weeks was slowed for the first time in a long time -- and it didn't speed up again any time soon.

Chris Carpenter turned in six solid innings, allowing three runs, but his offense was shut down by then struggling Carlos Zambrano. Worse still, when Colby Rasmus fouled a ball off his right calf, it caused him soreness that ultimately turned into a calf strain, which ended up sidelining Rasmus for the bulk of the next two weeks. As it was, the Cards were down two hitters thanks to the trade of Ludwick and David Freese's recent surgery; losing Rasmus turned out to be a telling blow for the already weakened lineup.

Moreover, while Carpenter was decent, he wasn't great, and the game started a stretch of decidedly mortal pitching from the former Cy Young winner. From that game through Sept. 25, Carpenter went 2-6 in nine starts with a 4.58 ERA, allowing four or more runs five times.

The Aug. 14 defeat was the first of 21 in 30 games for the Redbirds, who went from one game ahead of the Reds on the morning of Aug. 14 to eight games back after a Sept. 15 loss to those same Cubs. They went 3-17 against non-contending clubs in that span. (More | )

What went right: The heart of the order was everything the Cardinals hoped it would be. Albert Pujols enjoyed another MVP-caliber season, and after a slow start by his standards, Matt Holliday put up a typically outstanding campaign. The front of the rotation was even better, with Wainwright contending for Cy Young honors and Carpenter and Jaime Garcia making a formidable 1-2-3. Rasmus took a step forward offensively, youngsters like Jon Jay, Allen Craig and Tyler Greene showed that they might be a part of the 2011 club, and the bullpen was once again very strong.

What went wrong: Beyond the heart of the order, far too many hitters regressed. Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina and Brendan Ryan all had worse years in '10 than they did in '09, and the Felipe Lopez signing turned out so badly that Lopez was released with two weeks to play. Major injuries to Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny proved costly to the rotation, and ultimately led the club to deal Ludwick in order to add Westbrook. The Cardinals were less sharp defensively and on the basepaths than fans have come to expect.

Biggest surprise: Even those who backed Garcia for the fifth starter's job coming out of Spring Training couldn't have foreseen the year he would have. Before being shut down as a precautionary measure for the season's final 2 1/2 weeks, Garcia was brilliant. He went 13-8 with a 2.70 ERA, 132 strikeouts and 64 walks, and allowed exactly nine home runs all year. Garcia made six starts in which he didn't allow any runs, including a dazzling three-hit shutout of the Giants on Aug. 22. He was a huge boost for a team that leaned heavily on its rotation all season. (More | )

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.