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Cards let one get away

By Joe Strauss, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — The Cardinals happened upon a game for the stealing Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium. Rather than seize upon it, they retreated to a ninth-inning loss that hinted at exposure.

Long before second baseman Jason Kipnis ripped a three-run, ninth-inning home run off reliever Jason Motte, the Cleveland Indians had made a more compelling argument for the win.

To the Cardinals, it represented a tease in what ended as a 4-1 loss before a quick-exiting crowd of 43,400.

Less than a year after he graduated Class A Palm Beach, Joe Kelly turned his major-league debut into a five-inning standoff against Indians veteran starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who limited the Cardinals to right fielder Carlos Beltran’s second-inning home run and four singles.

The Indians repeatedly threatened, stranding 10 while going one for nine with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals meanwhile finished the series with only five runs and a .240 average. They split the final two games while going 0 for six with runners in scoring position.

Now 2-29 when tied or trailing after seven innings, the Cardinals threatened to break a tie during a 32-pitch eighth inning as reliever Vinnie Pestano (3-0) walked the bases loaded with one out.

Tribe manager Manny Acta never stirred his bullpen during Pestano’s loss of command and was rewarded when Pestano struck out catcher Yadier Molina and left fielder Allen Craig after starting each with two strikes.

“We got down to the end and we had opportunities,” manager Mike Matheny noted. “That was the situation we wanted with the guys up there we wanted. Sometimes it happens; sometimes it doesn’t. They’ve been very successful in that situation. I’ll take them every time.”

The Cardinals have traded within a narrow range this month but have lost six of their last 12 and 19 of 31 since May 10. If inconsistent pitching torpedoed their 13-16 May, a lineup in flux has bothered them this month.

The Cardinals are hitting .240 this month, offsetting a recent rebound by the starting rotation. In their last 10 games they’ve scored four runs or fewer seven times, two runs or fewer six times. Left fielder Matt Holliday missed a second consecutive game Sunday with back spasms, complicating a situation created by injuries to Lance Berkman, Jon Jay, Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter. Schumaker and Carpenter are expected to begin rehab assignments this week. Jay’s right shoulder still limits him to one-handed swings with no rehab in sight. Fallout necessitates heavy time for less experienced players at center field and first base.

Rookie first baseman Matt Adams is in a three-for-30 skid after a precocious start.

“I feel like I’ve gotten out of my approach,” said Adams, who impressed with a concise swing upon his arrival last month. “I’m falling into the pitchers’ trap. You get down and have a couple 0-fer games, you’ve got to try to get back to what you’ve always done.”

Shortstop Rafael Furcal, catalyst for the offense’s breakout start, is fighting a six-for-42 stretch that includes an active 0-for-11 skid and one multi-hit game in his last 10. Two late singles left third baseman David Freese in a 10-for-45 funk since May 27.

“The guys are holding their own. But you can’t take injuries out of the equation when it comes to the way the team’s playing as a whole,” Matheny said. “I still say with our lineup every day we’ve got a chance. We’ve got a good chance. We’ve got a good lineup regardless of who we have in there. We’ve got depth. We’ve talked about that since spring training. Now we’re using it.

“Sometimes you go through spurts when you’re playing well; sometimes you’re fighting it. Right now we’re fighting it.”

Kelly minimized seven hits and a walk despite working without a curveball. He occasionally mixed a change-up with a mid-90s fastball while relying heavily on his catcher.

“He did a very nice job, all things considered,” Matheny said. “He looked like he stayed with his game plan the whole time and never got away from it.”

Kelly, a former college teammate of reliever Marc Rzepczynski, made only 23 starts at Class AA Springfield and Class AAA Memphis before being promoted to start in place of Jaime Garcia.

Kelly faced a situation every inning but held the Indians to a third-inning run that began with right fielder Shin Soo-Choo’s leadoff double and ended with first baseman Carlos Santana’s sacrifice fly to left field.

The Cardinals fell to 3-15 in weekend games the last six weeks. (They last won a weekend series April 27-29 against the Milwaukee Brewers.) They have scored six runs total in six June weekend games against the New York Mets and Indians, their only win coming in Saturday’s 2-0 five-hitter. The recent statistical quirk may have more to do with an offense being exposed than moon phases or biorhythms.

Adron Chambers received his fifth start in center field while Adams made his 17th start at first base. Jay last appeared in center field May 15.

Matheny attempted to give Beltran his second start in center field Saturday night until Holliday’s back forced a lineup change five minutes before first pitch. Out until at least late July, Lance Berkman has made only 13 starts at first base between two trips to the disabled list.

Including Kelly’s debut, the current starting five have compiled a 2.73 ERA while allowing 36 baserunners and striking out 37 against seven walks in 36 1/3 innings covering their last six appearances.

“I’m going to continue to stay optimistic because that’s what I believe,” Matheny said. “It’s not some facade. I think it’s only a matter of time before we take off. I know those guys believe it, too. We’re playing less than our best baseball and we still have a fighting chance.”

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