What's eating slumping Cards?

SHAWN CLARKE, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 4:17 PM ET

Tony La Russa hasn't managed many poor teams during his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In fact, the Cardinals have missed the playoffs only six times since La Russa took over the ballclub back in 1996, a pretty solid batting average.

But something is wrong with the current state of this franchise, which arguably has two of the best right-handers in the game and an MVP first baseman any manager would salivate over.

So why are the Cardinals caught in a tailspin and fading from the playoff picture faster than an Adam Wainwright fastball?

Nobody knows for sure.

Pitching actually has been a sore spot lately for the defending National League Central champions, with Wainwright shouldering some of the blame. A candidate for the league's Cy Young Award this season, Wainwright has lost three straight starts. Though he could have become the only pitcher in the majors with 20 wins this season, Wainwright is stuck on 17.

Former NL Cy Young honouree Chris Carpenter is the other right-handed ace in the rotation. His play has been admirable recently with five wins in his last six decisions, and Carpenter will try to get the Cardinals back to respectability Tuesday night against Houston.

Newcomer Jake Westbrook, however, has yet to impress his new employer and, like Wainwright, is mired in a three-start skid. He is only 1-3 in six starts since coming over from Cleveland, but pitched well in Monday's 3-0 loss to the Astros. Kyle Lohse has been dreadful and Jaime Garcia is one of the few bright spots on the staff. Garcia is third on the team in wins (12).

The Cardinals, though, are more worried about the top three hurlers getting back on track, especially in the midst of their longest road trip of the season. They opened the swing by losing two of three in Pittsburgh, followed by three losses in four games at Washington. St. Louis was on the losing end in the opener of a three-game skid in Houston last night.

"It's been a tough road trip," Westbrook noted on the team's site. "We need to figure things out."

Those sentiments from Westbrook couldn't be more obvious after producing only two hits in last night's loss. St. Louis made Astros left-hander J.A. Happ look like Steve Carlton out on the hill, as the southpaw walked only one batter, and of his 114 pitches, 79 went for strikes.

Prior to getting embarrassed by Happ, the Cardinals displayed a sign of team bonding by shaving their heads. The show of allegiance didn't pay off, but there are still plenty of games left on the 2010 schedule.

St. Louis is currently three games behind Philadelphia for the wild card lead and six games in back of NL Central-rival Cincinnati for the top spot in the division standings. Owning a 28-37 record away from Busch Stadium hasn't helped the cause much, and neither will upcoming matchups with the Reds, Brewers, Braves, Cubs and Padres.

Milwaukee and Chicago have already planned early vacations, but the two clubs also reside in the NL Central and have plenty of knowledge and experience on how to make life even more miserable for the Cardinals.

If the Cardinals, led by slugger Albert Pujols, continue to fall flat on their faces, perhaps a boost in payroll will be in order for 2011. Pujols, however, is set to earn a salary large enough to feed a small country, and that could limit St. Louis in its efforts to get back on course. It would be simply foolish not to give Pujols what he wants, however. Heck, the Cardinals could give him part ownership for all of the money he's put into the front office's pockets.

St. Louis Sr. Vice President and General Manager John Mozeliak, a beneficiary of the slugger's talents, has made some moves to maintain a formidable squad, including the addition of Matt Holliday, who inked a gigantic contract in the offseason. Holliday's $120 million contract is the richest in club history, surpassing reigning NL MVP Pujols' seven-year, $100 million pact inked before the 2005 season.

With more than $200 million squirreled away on just two players, reconstructing a team to its days of dominance may take longer than expected.

If the Cardinals miss the playoffs, Mozeliak will have some extra time to form a new plan.


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