CINCINNATI -- Mike Matheny has been given every chance to play up this series, to speak out about how critical it is for the Cardinals to start the second half by beating up on one of two teams that stands between them and a division title.
The first-year manager, however, refuses to bite at such supposition. He's entirely opposed to the idea, preferring to see each game, each opponent, as equal.
Yet simple mathematics suggests otherwise, confirming that the quickest way for the Cardinals to make ground in the National League Central standings is to take down those in front of them in head-to-head matchups. They had such a chance on Friday and let it get away, instead opening up the season's second half with a loss -- this one by a 5-3 final in front of 40,217 at Great American Ball Park.
A win would have bumped the Cardinals to within a half-game of Cincinnati. Instead, St. Louis finds itself 2 1/2 games in back of both the Pirates and Reds, who now own a share of first place, and bothered by a game in which a bunch of little things gone wrong added up in a big way.
"I wanted to set the tone," starter Adam Wainwright said. "We're playing a team that's ahead of us in the standings right now. Every game is important. Tonight, you'd like to come in and make a statement in their park on the first game back."
Wainwright appeared poised to do so, carrying a 2-1 lead and a modest pitch count of 77 into the seventh. He had allowed just two hits to that point.
The slow unraveling began with consecutive singles, the second on a poorly placed 3-1 cutter to Jay Bruce. Ryan Ludwick's third sacrifice bunt since 2009 moved both runners into scoring position.
"In the situation," Reds manager Dusty Baker said, "that was a big, big, big bunt."
Wainwright intentionally walked Todd Frazier -- who homered in the fifth -- to load the bases with one out, creating a situation where the Cardinals would have a force out at any base.
Looking for a ground ball, Wainwright got one off the bat of Ryan Hanigan. But it was so slowly hit, and it was so well placed, that the Cardinals had no play at home, nor the chance to turn two. Allen Craig charged in. Wainwright raced to cover first base.
When Craig's flip to Wainwright wasn't caught, the Reds plated the go-ahead run, as well.
"That's a really frustrating play," Craig said. "If I had it back, I probably would have been playing in front of the baserunner. But [Hanigan] likes to hit it to that side of the field, so you have to be able to cover some ground on the right side of the infield, too. I tried to make a play, but I probably would have been better off not doing anything with it."
"What can you do?" added Wainwright, who tripped on the play after getting tangled in Hanigan's shoelaces at first base. "It was just a debacle."
It also put an end to Wainwright's night. Another run, which turned out to be the winning one, would score with reliever Victor Marte on the mound before the inning came to a close.
"When he gets into a bind, I have a lot of confidence in him getting us out of it," Matheny said of Wainwright. "It's a shame, because I don't like that that's what ends up costing you."
The loss dropped Wainwright to 7-9 in a season that is filling up with frustration for the right-hander. This time it was a 70-foot grounder that did him in. Two starts ago, infield shifts sunk him. He's often expressed how much better he's felt than his results would suggest, and run support has, at times, been severely lacking for him.
There was certainly good to be taken out of the start, but the outcome still left Wainwright aggravated by his perpetual bad luck.
"I didn't make many mistakes tonight, really," he said. "That's one of those head-scratchers that you just don't know how it happened. I had good enough stuff to win tonight and I probably should have. For whatever reason, things have not gone my way sometimes."
He also again received only modest assistance from his offense, which left 11 runners on base and let Reds starter Mat Latos off the hook.
The Cardinals scored on a two-out single by Skip Schumaker in the second and pushed across another run in the third. Yet, subsequent chances to extend the lead passed by.
Craig popped out to short with one out and a runner on third in the third inning. Matt Holliday struck out swinging on three pitches to strand the bases loaded in the seventh. An inning later -- after narrowing the deficit to one on a two-out single by pinch-hitter Shane Robinson -- the Cardinals again left the bases full. One more was stranded in the ninth.
"That's what this game's about. We didn't drive in runs when we needed to, starting with myself," said Craig, who finished 0-for-5. "I had a couple of opportunities and didn't get it done today. It's frustrating."
So, too, is the frequency with which this team is losing close games. While the Cardinals still enjoy a run differential of plus-68 on the season, they are 14-23 in games determined by two or fewer runs.
"Not how we wanted it to go," Matheny said. "Throw it away and show up tomorrow.".
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.