Cardinals take breather before taking on Pirates

ST. LOUIS -- The electronic message board where the St. Louis Cardinals lineup is posted left no room for debate: Clubhouse Closed. Coaches Included.

The mandatory breather came Monday before the NL Central-leading Pirates, the team that used to be pursuing the Cardinals, comes to town. Manager Mike Matheny said before they get back to business, players need to get away.

"These guys, they're tired, no question about it. They deserve a half-day today, and a full day tomorrow," Matheny said Sunday. "We're locking the clubhouse doors just in case anybody has a stupid idea."

Adam Wainwright, who in recent starts has lacked the put-away pitch that makes him the staff ace, got a similar message. He has steadfastly maintained fatigue is not an issue, has worked at least seven innings his last four outings and is among the league leaders in most categories, but figures to be fresh after three extra days rest entering the series opener Tuesday night.

Wainwright (13-7, 2.66) was the first to 13 wins in the National League and makes his fourth try for No. 14 against Charlie Morton (4-3, 3.88) in the series opener.

The Cardinals probably surprised themselves a bit when they were 25 games above .500 with the best record in the major leagues. They're mostly frustrated about their 5-13 tailspin.

The most visible sign of nerves fraying just a bit? The sound of Matheny's fingertips tap, tap, tapping away at the podium during his televised postgame news conference after particularly excruciating setbacks.

They still have the third-best record in the National League and a comfortable cushion in the competition for postseason slots. Though it's been a forgettable home stand thus far with series losses to the Dodgers and Cubs, they gained ground back Sunday when the Pirates got swept in Colorado.

In the series finale against the Cubs, the Cardinals picked up a second straight failure by the bullpen, regained control and won by four runs behind Edward Mujica's first save since July 25.

"It would have been another rough one," Matheny said. "Especially having a two-run lead and watching it go away."

Now, the Cardinals are hoping for some payback. They dropped four of five at Pittsburgh in late July, surrendering their division lead to the Pirates in the process.

"It's going to be fun, getting them over here at home," said rookie Joe Kelly, the starter in each of the Cardinals' last two wins. "Hopefully, we take it to them."

The first three losses in Pittsburgh ended a stretch of six straight games, all setbacks, in which St. Louis scored two or fewer runs. Unlike Tony La Russa, whom Matheny succeeded as manager in 2011, there's no hesitation to say that yes, it's a big series.

"I know our guys are looking forward to playing them again," Matheny said. "We're anxious about it. There's a little added excitement with them coming in town and something to prove. We're a better team than we showed in Pittsburgh."

The Pirates also were off Monday, and also told they needed a break from baseball.

The day off gives rookie setup man Trevor Rosenthal time to shake off a particularly rough outing on Saturday. It might be well-timed for Carlos Beltran, too: The Cardinals' top long ball threat was taken for X-rays Sunday after fouling a ball off his foot, and was somewhat hopeful he'd get over the bruise in time for the series opener. Matheny said Beltran's instep was sore and that the player had trouble pushing off.

"The way I feel right now, I can walk," Beltran said after Sunday's game. "I don't know about running. Maybe tomorrow with treatment, ice, we'll see how it feels Tuesday."