It has come to this for the reeling St. Louis Cardinals: Manager Tony La Russa is making bullpen decisions based on fan sentiment.

Asked, after a bullpen implosion led to an 8-6 Cardinals loss to the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night, why he hadn’t turned to erstwhile closer Ryan Franklin during the interminable seventh inning that cost the Cardinals the game, La Russa replied:

“Our fans are more tolerant of [Miguel] Batista, [Trever] Miller and [Jason] Motte than they would have been of Franklin.”

Although La Russa later added that he felt he needed to hold Franklin back as a potential long man for Wednesday night’s game — with right-hander Kyle McClellan making his first start since coming off the disabled list — the above quote serves as a suitable snapshot of a team coming apart at the seams. The Cardinals limped into Nationals Park having just been swept in Milwaukee, losing their hold on the NL Central lead in the process, and Tuesday night’s gruesome loss was their fourth in a row.

For two months, the Cardinals were one of the better stories in baseball — a plucky first-place squad that had survived a brutal string of injuries, beginning with Adam Wainwright’s season-ending elbow blowout in spring training, to position themselves for a playoff run in the final year of Albert Pujols’s current contract.

But it’s difficult to know what to make of the Cardinals now, with the Brewers surging, the defending division-champion Reds coming to life, and the trade deadline looming in just over six weeks.

“We’re like any club,” La Russa said before Tuesday’s game, when asked about the Cardinals’ needs heading into the July 31 trade deadline. “You know you’re not perfect. But you still may not know what your [trade] priorities are.”

Although the Cardinals’ obvious need for bullpen help has made them the subject of much media speculation – much of it focused on Padres closer Heath Bell, who is certain to be one of the top trade targets in baseball this summer – team officials want to see their full team on the field before making any conclusive decisions.

That should occur in the next few weeks, as McClellan returns Wednesday night, with left fielder/cleanup hitter Matt Holliday scheduled to come off the disabled list on Thursday, and third baseman David Freese a few more weeks away from a return.

“A season is fluid,” General Manager John Mozeliak said Tuesday. “What might be your biggest need today might not be a few weeks later. . . . The parts aren’t necessarily falling into place in sequence.”

This much is known: As long as Holliday and Freese make successful returns, the Cardinals are confident enough in their lineup to focus their attention on pitching. And while the bullpen is the most obvious weakness, management seems to be equally concerned about the rotation, which, despite Jaime Garcia’s strong outing Tuesday night, has a 5.44 in its last 16 games.

And there is one other wild card here: The Cardinals, who still haven’t found a suitable replacement for McClellan in the eighth-inning role he vacated when he was moved to the rotation, could always move him back to the bullpen.

But that, of course, would simply shift resources from one struggling segment of the team to another. To give themselves a chance, the Cardinals are going to need reinforcements – and not just the ones coming off the disabled list.