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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Must-win series perfect elixir for slumping Cards

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ST. LOUIS -- You like wreckage? You the type who loves the slam-bang action movies with things exploding, fires burning, fistfights and cars going through shopping mall windows?

You should be here. That's the past two weeks for St. Louis.

Mitchell Boggs and the Cardinals show some fire for the first time since they swept Cincinnati. (AP)  
Mitchell Boggs and the Cardinals show some fire for the first time since they swept Cincinnati. (AP)  
Pieces of the Cardinals are everywhere. It's like a crime scene before the yellow tape goes up. And they can't blame this gore on Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips.

In fact, when Phillips and the Reds showed up here Friday night to begin their final head-to-head meeting with the Cardinals this summer, everybody played nice. The Cardinals even won 3-2 to trim Cincinnati's lead to -- gulp -- seven games.

Oh, the sellout crowd of 43,540 booed the hand-brace off of Phillips, Public Enemy No. 1 around here, during each of his four plate appearances. It was loud and it was creative. When Phillips fouled a ball into the stands behind the Cardinals' dugout in the third, they threw it back onto the field. Those who say St. Louis fans don't know how to boo, au contraire.

"To tell you the truth, the only things that bothered me tonight was us losing, my timing and my hand," said Phillips, who was back in the starting lineup after sitting six games because of a badly bruised right hand suffered when Santiago Casilla drilled him with a pitch in San Francisco just more than a week ago. "I wasn't paying attention [when the foul ball was returned to the field]."

It was Phillips, as you recall, who voiced what some around the game have grown to take on faith during the Tony La Russa years, that the Cardinals are "whiny." Only Phillips said it much more colorfully just before the Cards arrived in Cincinnati, then he had the temerity to deliver a bat-tap hello to the shin guard of Yadier Molina, the catcher snarled back and it was on.

That was the last anybody's heard from the Cardinals.

So this might not be a must-sweep series, but the Redbirds pretty much are in a must-win situation every day. That's the new math for a new school year in St. Louis.

Foreseeing any sort of a sustained streak is a problem, being that the Cardinals had lost five in a row and 13 of 18 to drop out of sight more quickly than Rob Dibble from the Nationals' telecasts.

How bleak is it?

In giving props to rookie starter Jaime Garcia, who held the Reds to two runs in 6 2/3 innings in winning his 13th game, Cards skipper Tony La Russa said of the young lefty, "He knows what's at stake. Not just who we're playing, but the fact that we've had trouble just winning a single game."

Since sweeping Cincinnati three weeks ago in a series that made a lot of folks wonder if the Reds had met the end of the road and the Cards were about to take their rightful place atop the division, La Russa's bunch has been beaten down by the Cubs (you can't be serious), the Brewers (c'mon), Pittsburgh (criminy) and Houston (what's next, the Washington Generals?).

That moved this Reds-Cardinals series here from the "showdown" category over to the "survival" column. The only thing missing Friday -- aside from another brawl -- was a priest to administer St. Louis last rites.

More on Reds-Cards

You think that's an exaggeration? This is what Geoff Blum told reporters in Houston after the Astros swept the Cards in three this week: "It looked like they didn't want to beat us."

Though their manager carried an iPhone during batting practice, La Russa insists that the Cardinals aren't phoning it in.

"He's a pro that I respect," La Russa said when I asked him about Blum's comments before Friday's series opener. "We made a lot of outs where we went to the plate, took a left turn and went back to the dugout.

"We got beat 3-0 twice, and when that's happening, you're not going to look like a club that's taking extra bases, because you're not on base. Guys have a right to their own opinion."

Before finally winning on Friday, the Cardinals had lost seven games in the standings to the Reds in 17 days, and four games in the past seven.

"It might be overly simplistic, but what could go wrong has gone wrong," general manager John Mozeliak said during a batting-practice conversation. "Whenever we've pitched, we don't hit. Whenever we've hit, we don't pitch. In between, we've had several base-running and defensive mistakes."

It's the lack of execution that has sabotaged a team many thought invincible in the NL Central with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday lurking in the middle of the lineup and perennial Cy Young candidates Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright anchoring the rotation.

Reality is, there is far too little support behind Pujols and Holliday in the lineup. You start from there, and work backward.

Recent batting orders have featured Allen Craig (!) leading off and light-hitting Felipe Lopez hitting first or second. There are murmurs of a rift between La Russa and young outfielder Colby Rasmus, who maybe isn't as tough as the hard-nosed manager would like.

With rookie David Freese done for the season because of an ankle injury, Friday's lineup featured Houston cast-off Pedro Feliz at third. There was a time when the Cardinals beat the Astros ... and didn't take their backwash.

Through all of this, you wonder whether La Russa will return for a 16th season in St. Louis next summer or whether maybe it's time to move on for both sides -- the manager and the team.

The decision, as always, will be on La Russa, who prefers working under one-year deals.

Will he be back in 2011?

"I don't have a sense on that yet," Mozeliak said. "We'll handle that the way we've always handled it. Historically, we've reviewed it after the season."

Since roaring out of the gate 18-8 to start the season, the Cardinals have gone 52-54 since. They traded slugger Ryan Ludwick to San Diego in July in a deal that netted them Jake Westbrook, essentially a No. 4 starter who will be a free agent this winter. That hasn't exactly sent them soaring, either.

Listening to La Russa, as competitive a manager as there is, it doesn't exactly sound like he's fallen in love with what he has.

"If you're characterizing us as underachieving, that's a tough hit to take," he said. "Our pitching staff has been leading [the league] all year almost. First, second or third. There's guys in this clubhouse that I don't think you can say are underachieving.

"But there's no doubt that the last homestand and this road trip, we did not achieve wins. We've been struggling. A lot of the same guys that have given us some of our best moments and put us in a winning position are the same guys, pitchers and hitters, that are struggling."

Maybe things are about to turn back. Maybe the sight of the Reds will be as a red cape is to a bull. Though much of the emotion from the brawl in Cincinnati seems to have evaporated -- facing early elimination will change a team's priorities in a hurry -- the Cardinals remain livid that Johnny Cueto's kick ended the season for backup catcher Jason LaRue. The concussion he suffered continues to keep LaRue from even being able to drive.

Anything for a rallying point. Right now, man. Even the area cabbies and bellhops are shaking their heads over this team.

"I've been a Cardinals fan my entire life," a middle-aged bellhop at my hotel said as I was hopping into a cab for the ballpark Friday. "This is the worst I've ever seen. We always could at least catch the ball. We're not even doing that this year."

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