I’ll be honest. Prior to the season and through the first five months of the season, I didn’t think there was a chance the Cardinals would lose the NL Central title. As we sit here on September 22nd, the division title hopes are long gone for the Cards, the Reds magic number stands at three and the Cardinals chances for the wildcard are near impossible (down 8.0 games behind three teams). Hell, they are only five games up on the Astros in the Central.

So how did we get here from when the Cardinals were sitting in first place a game up on the Reds a little over a month ago on August 13? Well since then, the Cardinals are on a 12-24 slide at the worst possible time a slump could happen for this team. I thought all year that while the Reds were proving to be a legit, surprise team that the Cardinals would end up pulling it out down the stretch because of the big three—Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Seemed like too much firepower for Cincinnati to handle. Turns out, I was wrong.

Let’s start with CC. Carpenter has not been good in August and September. Since improving to 12-3 with a 2.91 ERA on August 4, the former Cy Young award winner has been a pedestrian 3-5 with 4.34 ERA in his last nine starts, including losses in his last three games. Wainwright also has seen his ERA balloon the past month and a half. He sported a sparkling 1.99 ERA after a 7.0 inning gem against the Reds on August 11, but since then has not been himself with a 2-5 record and 4.13 ERA. So the two aces of this staff has been middle of the road in crucial time late in the season, the back-end of the rotation was never that stable to begin with. Kyle Lohse has been terrible all year (4-8, 7.18 ERA, 12.9 H/9), and Jake Westbrook, who the Cards acquired in a three-team deal that sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego, hasn’t been a savior by any means. Westbrook is 2-3 with a 3.26 ERA in nine starts since arriving in St. Louis…hey, he’s actually posted better numbers than Wainwright and Carpenter since August. To state it blunt, the Cardinals pitching just fell apart. Their team 2010 ERA is at 3.61, but the team’s earned run average in the past 28 days is a different story—4.70.

The pitching isn’t the only thing to blame since the bats also went south for the crucial part of the season. St. Louis team slash line on the entire season is .263/.331/.406. Not bad. How about for the past 28 days: slash line of .237/.299/.361. Significant drop offs in all three major categories. Pundits rode Pujols a bit hard this year saying this was one of his worst seasons in his career. Well, he’s still on pace for one hell of a season. Most major leaguers would dream of a down year like this one. He’s one homer shy of two straight 40-HR seasons, recorded over 100 RBI for the 10th straight year, looks like he’ll finish with a BA over .300 and while it’s hit lowest of his career, he’s still posting a stellar .403 OBP. Not to mention he’s leading the league in runs with 105. He also has not been part of the Cards slump. In their 12-23 slump since August 13, Pujols hit 11 bombs, 23 RBI, a slash line of .293/.394/.631 and has recorded more walks than strikeouts. I cannot state this any clearer than this—Albert Pujols was not the Cardinals problem this year.

Their problem was after dealing Ludwick to the Padres, besides Pujols, Halladay and Rasmus the Cardinals lacked another power hitter or even pure hitter to mix in that lineup. Also, the lead off position has been a mess for manager Tony LaRussa as he used a combination of Skip Schumaker (64 games) and Felipe Lopez (65 games) at the top of the order all season to no avail. Schumaker hit .268/.331/.347 with a big five steals while Lopez was actually worse with a .231/.310/.340 line. Basically there was no catalyst to jump-start this offense, and that’s a major problem because talent like Pujols and Holliday need runners to knock in.

Basically this team went on a slide in mid-August and never recovered as it turned into a collapse. While the team has a handful of superstars including two aces, this collapse proved that there was not much else around them to pick up the slack when the others struggled.

To further prove a point of the difficulty to explain why the Cardinals have been a mess since the beginning of August…they’re on the verge of being swept by the hands of the Pirates. Ouch. That’s an unprecedented low.