ST. LOUIS -- Even at full strength, most offenses have a hard time with Cliff Lee. A diminished St. Louis lineup scarcely had a chance.
The former Cy Young Award winner outdid Kyle Lohse with a shutout in a pitchers' duel at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night, sending the Cardinals to a 4-0 loss against the Phillies. It was the Cardinals' first game against a left-handed starter since they lost Albert Pujols to injury, and the absence of Pujols and the recuperating David Freese certainly made the Cards' task tougher.
Lohse was outstanding, attacking the strike zone all night en route to his longest start in four weeks and his best in nearly that long. He lasted eight innings but could well have finished the game, needing 90 pitches to get 24 outs. Lohse surrendered two homers among four hits in the fateful fourth inning, and even among the array of hits, only truly made one bad pitch.
Unfortunately, it came at the worst time. Lohse left a 1-0 fastball up and out over the plate to Ryan Howard, and Howard stayed with it for a two-run opposite-field home run that made the score 3-0. It continued a career-long trend for Howard, who is 8-for-16 against his former teammate.
"I kind of fell behind Howard and he was looking away and I left a ball up," Lohse said. "Other than that, I felt like I was in control. It was just an unfortunate night to have to go against Lee."
The rest of the three-run fourth was more about good hitting by good hitters than anything Lohse did particularly wrong. Jimmy Rollins' leadoff home run, on a 2-2 pitch, came when Rollins went down and dug out a changeup that was almost out of the strike zone. Chase Utley hit a 2-1 fastball that was well wide of the zone, poking it to left to get on base for Howard.
Lohse expressed frustration with the strike zone of home-plate umpire Marty Foster, believing that he should have gotten more strike calls on the inside half of the plate. However, Lohse said he adjusted relatively early and changed his game plan for the final several innings.
There wasn't much that Lohse did wrong, but it just didn't much matter. Though the Phillies are having a down year offensively, on an individual level they still have a slew of dangerous hitters.
"That's the kind of club they have," manager Tony La Russa said. "They're patient, and if they get something to hit, they don't miss it. But overall, in his eight innings, he did a good job and gave us a great chance to win.'
Lohse was backed by a team down two key components of its attack against left-handed pitching, and he was facing at least arguably the best left-hander in the game. Thus Lohse's margin for error, frankly, might not have even been zero. It might have been negative.
The Cardinals could do absolutely nothing against Lee, who was at his surgical best. Not only did Lee have his trademark superb command, he also had plenty of hop on his fastball. Lee consistently pitched at 91-93 miles per hour, adding an extra challenge to a pitcher who is plenty difficult to face when he's not hitting 93.
"He moved the ball around a lot," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He moved the ball in and out, he didn't stay in one place. He got on a good roll and just kind of stayed on it. He was pretty good."
The Cards missed out on their only real chance against Lee after Lohse led off the third inning with a double. Pete Kozma couldn't get the bunt down to advance the pitcher, meaning that Ryan Theriot's single only got Lohse to third. Jon Jay then hit into a double play, ending the first-and-third threat.
The loss was the Cardinals' ninth in 11 games. They remained one-half game behind the Brewers in the National League Central thanks to Milwaukee's loss to Tampa Bay.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.