ST. LOUIS -- On a normal night, against a normal opponent, Jake Westbrook would have been a hero. It becomes clearer all the time, though, that there is little normal about the Cardinals when they face the Brewers.
Another Milwaukee pitcher stifled the prolific St. Louis offense, sending the Cardinals to a damaging 5-1 loss at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night. The Cardinals fell five games behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central with 45 games to play. The Brewers' lead is the largest any team has had in the division this year, and the Cardinals' deficit is the furthest they've been out of first.
It's not an unclimbable mountain, by any means -- but it's more than a foothill at this point. The two rivals each have 45 games remaining in the regular season, including seven head-to-head matchups.
That may not be good news for St. Louis, though. The Cardinals are 3-8 against the Brewers this year, largely because they just haven't hit against Milwaukee. They are hitting .229 with a .270 on-base percentage and a .332 slugging percentage against the Brewers on the year. Starter Randy Wolf just continued the trend, befuddling the Cardinals over eight effective, efficient innings.
"He never got in trouble at all," said Albert Pujols, whose sacrifice fly brought home the only Cardinals run. "He was comfortable, cruising all night. We only got a few baserunners here and there. That was it. He was comfortable and he made some good pitches."
That meant that an impressive performance from Westbrook was squandered. After struggling through the first three innings, he settled in to go eight strong, not allowing a hit after the fourth. But he never pitched with a lead, and in fact was trailing when he took the mound in all but two innings.
Westbrook wasn't hit especially hard or even all that often, allowing six hits -- five of them singles. He was, however, erratic in the early going and it cost him. He allowed four walks in the first four innings, needing 78 pitches to get those first 12 outs. It continued a recent disquieting trend -- Westbrook has issued 11 free passes over his past three starts, more than he had in the preceding eight games.
Two of those walks started the two rallies that provided Milwaukee with all of its scoring against the starter. Westbrook put Corey Hart on to open the game, and after Nyjer Morgan's sacrifice attempt went for a base hit, Ryan Braun singled. Remarkably, a sacrifice fly from Prince Fielder provided all the scoring for the Brewers in the inning, and the Redbirds tied the score in the bottom half of the frame. In the third, though, a walk set the table for the decisive runs.
After Braun's one-out walk, Fielder doubled him in. A wild pitch allowed Fielder to go to third, and Yuniesky Betancourt singled him home.
"Definitely too many walks," Westbrook said. "But that was kind of the product of my sinker being all over the place. Once I kind of got back in the zone and being a little more aggressive, got back to more of what I'm capable of doing. Just one of those games -- didn't turn out good."
But that was all the Brewers got off Westbrook, and it shouldn't have cost him the game. Once Wolf locked down, however, it did.
A double, a sacrifice and Pujols' sac fly got the Cards on the board in the first. A pair of two-out hits had them threatening in the second. And that was it. From the third through the seventh, they managed a two-out single. Tony Cruz's pinch-hit single in the eighth was erased on a double play.
That was the extent of the Cards' offense against Wolf after the second, and it was nowhere near enough. They've now scored 34 runs in 11 games against Milwaukee. By comparison, the Cardinals have averaged nearly five runs per game against the rest of the league.
More specifically, the Brewers have handcuffed Pujols and Lance Berkman, who didn't start on Wednesday. Pujols is 5-for-42 against Milwaukee in 2011.
"I think we're mixing up pitches well with him," said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. "I don't think you can stay in any one spot. He's a great hitter, and when you make mistakes to him, he's going to hit them. We're really throwing the ball where we want to."
However, other teams have pitched the Cardinals well also, and they haven't had the success Milwaukee has. Cardinals players insisted that they haven't gotten out of their approach against the Brewers, but something has definitely been amiss.
"We approach every team the same way," Pujols said. "We have a game plan and we're going to go out there and hopefully try to execute. As a player, they pitch you different until you try to adjust. But I think, as a group, we have a good approach to go out there and take it and figure it out the first couple innings. If it doesn't work, hopefully try to make an adjustment."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.