The Cardinals' early-inning magic disappeared Monday night, and it cost them and starting pitcher Todd Wellemeyer dearly in a 4-3 loss.
Used to playing from ahead, the Cardinals trailed 4-0 after 2½ innings at least partly because of a fly ball lost in the dusk and Wellemeyer's early inefficiency.
Given several opportunities at a comeback against Reds starter Bronson Arroyo, they failed to fully exploit a third-inning chance and did too little with 13 baserunners.
"It was a weird night. Stuff you might see happen once a month ... all happened in one game," said lefthanded reliever Randy Flores, who worked 1 1/3 scoreless innings despite allowing three hits and a walk in the same inning.
The Reds won a series opener for the first time in 10 tries this month. The Cardinals, who had surrendered four runs total before the third inning this season, allowed two in the second inning before a two-out pop fly fell in the third for an RBI double.
Wellemeyer (2-1) struck out five but couldn't overcome his own early inconsistencies and the third-inning break.
"After three innings I felt really good. I don't know what happened. I had trouble getting going," Wellemeyer said.
"He had trouble getting comfortable for some reason. He just looked uncomfortable to me," catcher Yadier Molina said. "Once he got past the third inning he was fine."
Wellemeyer finished with 97 pitches, including 63 strikes, and retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced.
The Cardinals handicapped themselves offensively as well, stranding double-digit (10) runners for the third time in five games, a span in which they have left 47 runners. Six of their nine hits came with two outs but only one came with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals have scored first in 17 of 27 games and fell to 4-6 when scored upon first.
"You look at the scoreboard: 4-3. It's a close game. We were down early, battled back, and unfortunately didn't push across the fourth run," right fielder and nouveau leadoff hitter Ryan Ludwick said.
The Reds' Edwin Encarnacion became a goalie at third base. He took an early-inning throwing error after making a diving stop against first baseman Albert Pujols but atoned with a diving stop and throw on Molina's one-hop smash to end a seventh-inning rally, then ended the game with a sprawling catch against the Reds dugout.
"He made some plays," manager Tony La Russa said.
The Reds took a 2-0 lead when second baseman Brandon Phillips and Encarnacion sandwiched doubles around left fielder Adam Dunn's infield single. Phillips stole third base with none out before scoring on Dunn's hit. A wild pitch advanced Dunn to score on Encarnacion's double.
The Reds hiked the lead to 4-0 in the third inning after Wellemeyer walked leadoff hitter Corey Patterson and allowed Ken Griffey Jr. a one-out single.
Phillips' sacrifice fly scored Patterson before Wellemeyer's second walk of the inning advanced Griffey into scoring position. Encarnacion doubled home the Reds' final run on a shallow fly ball that left fielder Chris Duncan never saw against the early-evening sky and center fielder Rick Ankiel, who found it late, failed to run down.
"That's baseball," Duncan said tersely afterward.
"Sometimes it's real tough," said Ludwick. "You can pick it up coming up through the stadium then once it goes into that sky, sometimes it can be real, real tough."
Wellemeyer left trailing 4-3 because the Cardinals did too little with a potential breakout before receiving Ankiel's fifth home run in the sixth inning that was good for his first RBI since April 13.
Shortstop Cesar Izturis' leadoff single, Ankiel's one-out double to right field and an all-but intentional walk of Pujols loaded the bases in the third inning. The cleanup hitter, Duncan, popped to third base before Arroyo forced home the inning's only run on a walk of third baseman Troy Glaus, who donned sunglasses in the first inning but ditched them in his second plate appearance.
"It wasn't a problem tonight," Glaus said about a condition that has caused his eyes to water in night games at Busch. "I had the glasses with me on-deck, but they weren't necessary tonight. I don't know why. I really don't care, as long as it's not a problem."
The loss came without outfielder and regular leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker, who did not appear for the first time this season after a one-for-12 series against the Houston Astros.
La Russa instead introduced Ludwick in the No. 1 spot, creating his 19th lineup in 27 games.
Ludwick, 29, had not worked the leadoff role since his rookie 2002 season with the Texas Rangers. Monday the role proved an uncomfortable fit. Ludwick grounded out and struck out four times, once in the sixth inning with two outs and the tying run in scoring position.