Missed offensive chances and baserunning gaffes cost the Redbirds a game they very well could have and probably should have won, as they fell to Justin Lehr and Cincinnati, 5-4, at Busch Stadium. St. Louis collected 11 base hits against the journeyman right-hander but turned them into just a lone run before a late rally that fell short.
The Reds were charged with one error but played a spotty defensive game. They ran into two outs on the bases themselves. Cincinnati allowed the Cardinals' leadoff man to reach base in six innings, but the Cardinals did not capitalize, missing out on a chance to go 13 games over .500 and open a four-game lead in the National League Central.
It was an uncharacteristically unimpressive game from a team that has been playing very well recently. St. Louis lost for just the fourth time in 14 games and remained three games ahead of the Cubs in the Central.
"I guess we were bound to have one of those games," said infielder Brendan Ryan, who had two hits off the bench.
Rookie starter Mitchell Boggs dug a deep hole for the Cardinals, allowing three first-inning runs, but settled in to last six innings and keep the Cardinals in the game. He threw three first-pitch strikes to eight batters in the first inning, then to 14 of the final 21 batters he faced.
"I've got to get better," said Boggs, who was filling in for the injured Todd Wellemeyer. "Putting your team in a hole like that in the first two innings is not something you can do at home, not something you can do with a chance to win a series. It took me too long to make an adjustment. I was able to make some good pitches later in the game, but it just wasn't good enough tonight."
Still, while that deficit might have been prohibitive in May or June, this is a different Cardinals offense. With Boggs holding the fort and finishing with four runs in six innings, the home team had a chance. But despite hit after hit against Lehr, they couldn't capitalize. Two singles in the first did not yield a run. Neither did two more in the second, thanks to a double play.
Two hits and a walk finally added up to a single tally in the third, but two more singles led to nothing in the fourth.
"That was a good amount of baserunners, that's for sure," Lehr said. "A lot of small hits, but they never got the big hit, and the innings kept moving along. I wasn't really panicky about the hits because I felt like I was making decent pitches."
He also got some help from his opponents. With one out and men on the corners in the fourth, Skip Schumaker hit a fly ball to Jonny Gomes in shallow left field. Third-base coach Jose Oquendo sent Yadier Molina despite the short ball and Molina's lack of speed, and Molina was thrown out to end the inning. Colby Rasmus was left standing at the plate with no chance to drive in the run.
Two innings later, with the score still 4-1, Molina was thrown out on the bases again. This time he tried to advance on a single to Gomes and was gunned down without much drama. La Russa explained that Molina thought first-base coach Dave McKay was saying "go," when in fact McKay was saying "no." Whatever the explanation, it was another costly out.
Cincinnati stretched its lead to 5-1 in the eighth off struggling Jason Motte before St. Louis made one final push.
Albert Pujols hit his 37th homer, a solo shot, in the bottom of the frame and Molina added an RBI double to trim the deficit to 5-3. Ryan led off the final frame with a single and stole second. When Rasmus reached on an infield hit, Ryan scored on a throwing error by second baseman Brandon Phillips, bringing Pujols to the plate with a man on in a one-run game. He hit a double-play ball that the Reds couldn't convert, and Matt Holliday struck out to end the game.
One more time the Reds opened the door. One more time the Cardinals didn't walk through it.
"Anytime you can get Albert and Matt to the plate with a chance to win the game and not needing a homer, just needing a nice base hit to win the game, you have to feel good about your chances," said Mark DeRosa. "We didn't get it done today. We had opportunities. We scattered [15 hits], we just didn't get that big hit. They made some plays defensively. We battled to give ourselves a chance there, and that's all you ask every night, give yourselves a chance to win."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.