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Cardinals’ offense absent in loss; Furcal’s elbow injury could end his season

Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa (8) attempts to turn a double play over St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) in the fifth inning at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., Thursday, August 30, 2012. Molina was safe at second as Espinosa missed tagging the bag. But Espinosa did get the force out on the Cardinals’ David Freese at first base. The Nationals defeated the Cardinals, 8-1.

By Joe Strauss, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals got well Thursday night. The Cardinals fell heavily into a world of hurt.

Perhaps their worst night of the summer hung an 8-1 loss on the Cardinals and probably subtracted their starting shortstop for the remainder of the season.

When the night’s highlight is employing an unearned run to interrupt a string of 28 scoreless frames, it’s not a good thing.

When a previously reliable rotation fails to muster a six-inning start for a fifth straight game, it’s a worrisome thing. When shortstop Rafael Furcal is booked on an early-morning flight to St. Louis because he can no longer straighten his right elbow, it’s a downright depressing thing.

The Cardinals’ adventure at Nationals Park even saw key reserve Matt Carpenter sprain his right ankle turning a double play during pregame practice.

Furcal’s injury and the offense’s malaise overshadowed a difficult start for lefthander Jaime Garcia, who trailed 2-0 after his eighth pitch and surrendered six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Speaking of Furcal, Garcia said, “It’s sad. It’s disappointing, especially a guy like that. He’s been huge for us all year. Let’s hope for the best. Hopefully, he only has to miss the next couple of days.”

Hope suddenly is becoming an increasingly expensive commodity for the Cardinals, who now seek to rediscover power within their offense and consistency within their starting rotation.

Garcia (3-6) allowed nine hits and two walks. Nats rookie center fielder Bryce Harper provided an instant lead when he pulled Garcia’s second strike of the game for a two-run home run into the home team’s bullpen. Leadoff hitter Jayson Werth scored after reaching in his first three plate appearances, which included a fifth-inning home run for a 4-0 lead.

“In general these guys have been extremely durable and able to go long into the game. I just think it’s a blip on the screen right now,” manager Mike Matheny said. “I imagine tomorrow it’s going to change.”

Former teammate Edwin Jackson (8-9) administered the wipeout with eight dominant innings. He struck out 10 and allowed only four hits. The Cardinals spoiled his shutout when catcher Bryan Anderson opened the eighth inning with a double and scored on Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s wild throw on Jon Jay’s infield single.

“Jackson did exactly what he wanted to do, and then some,” Matheny said. “The offense did what they wanted.”

Third baseman David Freese described Jackson’s outing as the most dominant he had faced this season.

“We’ve run into a bit of a bad spell,” said left fielder Matt Holliday, whose infield hit in the first inning was the 1,500th hit of his career. “They’re swinging the bats well. Combine that with Edwin pitching well and that’s a bad formula.”

The Nats ended a five-game losing streak Wednesday. They scored only eight runs during that skid. They produced 13 hits Thursday, along with five walks. Harper finished with three RBIs.

Conversely, Anderson’s eighth-inning run ended the Cardinals’ longest scoreless drought since a 33-inning brownout in 1995 — the season before Tony La Russa took over as manager.

The Cardinals never put the tying run on base. They moved only one runner into scoring position before the Nats took an eight-run lead. The Cardinals, who entered Thursday leading the major leagues in run differential, have been outscored 22-1 during their three-game losing streak.

Three days after standing 3-1 on a promising road trip the Cardinals find themselves sorely tested. Furcal is believed to have suffered a season-ending strained ligament after making a series of difficult throws. Furcal said he experienced “a pop” on his last throw, a force at second base, after dealing with “tingling” in the area after throwing home for a force three hitters before.

Matheny and head athletic trainer Greg Hauck went to Furcal, who briefly lobbied to remain in the game. When Matheny asked him to make a throw to second base, Furcal could only lob the ball with a wince.

“I only hope it’s nothing crazy,” Furcal said.

“You can’t really describe it as losing a piece until you get all the information,” Matheny said. “But he’s been a phenomenal part of this team. He’s had a great season. Even losing him for today wasn’t good.”

At the very least, the club believes Furcal strained a muscle Thursday night that would sideline him for four weeks, maybe more. He will return home early this morning for an MRI.

“It’s very concerning,” Holliday said. “It looks like a possible serious elbow injury. He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the league. Even when he doesn’t swing the bat well he brings a lot to the team.”

Furcal, bothered for much of this season by back and shin issues, said he had not experienced a problem with the elbow until he made a fifth-inning throw on the fleet Harper’s grounder. He then hurried a throw home to stop a run for the sixth inning’s first out.

The arm finally betrayed Furcal when he threw across his body to force Jackson at second base for the inning’s second out.

The Cardinals reach the final three games of a now 3-4 trip with their wild-card lead vanishing. Thursday’s loss left them only one-half game in front for the National League’s final playoff berth.

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