Two outs from a win and a game gained on the division lead, the Cardinals Thursday night suffered their latest body blow within a season typified by closer, often cruel losses.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, a team overly reliant on home runs for offense, blasted consecutive ninth-inning pitches for home runs against closer Jason Motte. What had been a 1-0 Cardinals lead became a 2-1 loss before a crowd announced at 36,758 at Busch Stadium.
Those who endured an 85-minute rain delay witnessed the home club's 20th one-run loss, a numbing statistic that explains much about the disparity between impressive team statistics and a third-place standing.
The Cardinals suffered their fourth loss this season when leading after eight innings. This one took place as the Redbirds appeared poised to move within six games of the division-leading Cincinnati Reds. Back-to-back home runs by first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and center fielder Chris Young left Motte with his fifth blown save and the Cardinals to again explain how close-and-late meant trouble.
"We haven't seen too much of that from Jason. He's been very good this season," manager Mike Matheny said.
The outcome again left starting pitcher Kyle Lohse orphaned despite a strong performance. Though groping for command of his fastball, Lohse constructed 6 2/3 shutout innings before Marc Rzepczynski and Mitchell Boggs bridged the game to Motte.
Goldschmidt took Motte to a full count before wheeling on a cut fastball for a 423-foot home run.
"It wasn't very good," Motte said. "I had him 3-2 [in the count] and threw him a cutter there. It's one of those situations where you don't wnat to walk him, but you wnat to make a good enough pitch that he can't do what he did with it. I didn't do either one of those. He was up there in swing mode and I left it up."
When Motte tried to power his next pitch past Young, he met a similar result.
"It was just one of those things where he was geared up fastball, I threw a fastball and he hit it." Motte said.
Motte (4-4) may have worn the loss but an ineffective offensive night against Diamondbacks starting pitcher Trevor Cahill also made it possible. The Cardinals scratched for six hits and managed only a fifth-inning run on first baseman Allen Craig's two-out single that scored Lohse from second base. Three of the Cardinals' five hits against Cahill failed to leave the infield.
"We only scored one run. We take pride in what we do so obviously we think we could do more," Craig said. "He [Cahill] pitched very well. You have to see that. It just didn't happen tonight."
Last Friday Lohse pitched Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay to a draw by allowing four hits and one run in seven innings. Thursday's blown save left Lohse's record frozen at 12-2. Opposite Halladay, Lohse had allowed one run on four hits in seven innings. He failed to gain a decision because Halladay was merely brilliant. However, Lohse never complained about his misfortune, which also has included more than one potential win erased by an iffy bullpen performance or low-level offense.
"The record has been good but not nearly as good as it could have been," noted Matheny. "This is another example of that."
Lohse has given the Cardinals 19 quality starts in 25 appearances yet has received no decision 11 times. He hasn't lost since June 26. But he is not immune to the frustration caused by narrow losses, uncertain offense and late-inning brownouts. He has allowed one earned run in 19 innings covering his last three starts. Lohse carries a 2.08 ERA in 14 starts since a disappointing May. However, the Cardinals bullpen has absorbed blown saves five times after Lohse left with a lead.
Lohse hasn't lost since June 26. Behind him, the Cardinals faced more than four hitters in an inning just twice. And that example cost Lohse his push for a complete game.
"It's tough. I think we're still hanging in there," Lohse said. "I sound like a broken record but we're not where we want to be, need to be or should be. We've got to figure out a way to figure these things out. We had a one-run lead and it didn't work out today. Maybe we need to figure out a way to scratch out another run across. It's a team game."
The Diamondbacks threatened in the fourth inning by placing three runners. However, the threat was muted after left fielder Gerardo Parra was thrown out attempting to steal on an abortive hit-and-run play.
The lost out, on a strikeout of right fielder Justin Upton, left the bases empty with two outs before catcher Miguel Montero's single and a walk of Goldschmidt created a critical moment.
Lohse escaped by striking out Young.
In the seventh inning a two-out walk and shortstop Jake Elmore's first major-league hit put runners at first and second base, causing Matheny to summon Rzepczynski to face pinch hitter Chris Johnson. Rzepczynski got the swinging strikeout on an inside pitch that tied up Johnson.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal reached on a slow-hit ball to third base to begin the fifth inning with an infield hit. Lohse then failed to execute a sacrifice bunt as Furcal was forced at second base. Cahill hit center fielder Jon Jay with a pitch, bumping Lohse into scoring position, before Craig lined an RBI single to left field. Craig's hit left him 30 for 78 with runners in scoring position this season. The figure is the best in the National League.
Thursday's outing became a curtain call for Lohse against the Diamondbacks. After entering the season wiht little career success against them, he toppled them on May 9. Lohse was better this time but came away unfulfilled. It has become a season's theme.