PITTSBURGH -- All but impregnable for the past month, the Cardinals' bullpen crumbled at a most inopportune time on Monday. But as is often the case in a "bullpen loss," the foundations for St. Louis' defeat were laid long before the first reliever entered the game.
The Pirates rallied for three runs against three relievers in the eighth inning, sending the Cardinals to a 6-5 defeat at PNC Park. The loss ended the Cardinals' winning streak at five games and damaged their chances at an improbable run into the National League playoffs.
It was an inefficient and not especially aesthetically pleasing game all around for the visitors. They went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position, hit into two double plays, had two baserunners caught stealing and twice let leads get away.
"We had several chances to get a little more or a lot more than what we got," manager Tony La Russa said. "They prevented that. And we had a couple chances to give up a little less than we did. So it's a tough loss."
Albert Pujols inched closer to a milestone with three RBIs. Pujols has driven in 92 runs with 15 games to play, meaning he needs eight more to reach 100 for the 11th time in his 11 big league seasons.
Overall, though, it was not a sparkling offensive night for the Cardinals, despite the fact that they pushed across five runs. And that doomed them every bit as much as the ugly eighth. Then again, with six outs to go, the visitors held a 4-3 lead, and they didn't bring home a win.
Octavio Dotel struck out Andrew McCutchen to lead off the eighth, but walked Derrek Lee and was removed for Marc Rzepczynski. Ryan Doumit greeted the lefty with a game-tying double. Rzepczynski walked Ryan Ludwick intentionally and struck out Josh Harrison for the second out, but walked Jason Jaramillo and was removed for Fernando Salas.
"[I] was just not throwing strikes," Rzepczynski said. "That's the bottom line. The ball was up. [The pitch] to Doumit was up. It was kind of flat. But if I get ahead of him, it's a different story."
Unfortunately, things didn't get any better for Salas. He gave up a cue-shot double to Pedro Ciriaco down the right-field line that gave the Pirates the lead and allowed them to bring on closer Joel Hanrahan.
"It's a little frustrating because he didn't hit it very good, but he hit it right where there was nobody," Salas said through translator and teammate Jaime Garcia.
Hanrahan permitted a run but still finished it off as the Cardinals fell to 79-68. The leaves them 6 1/2 games back of Milwaukee in the NL Central, though they remained 4 1/2 games back of Wild Card-leading Braves after they lost to the Marlins in Florida.
Pujols had a two-run home run and a sacrifice fly, but it wasn't enough. The slugger has 35 home runs on the year after a slow start.
"You have to make your pitches," said Pittsburgh starter Brad Lincoln. "I think I made a decent pitch [on Pujols' homer], it just caught a little too much of the plate. He was able to do some damage with it. That's a guy you have to focus on and make your pitches when you need to. I just didn't execute here."
The Cardinals turned 11 hits and four walks into five runs -- not a bad total but a number that could have been quite a bit bigger.
"We had more that we should have got," La Russa said. "We marked a little bit but we had a chance to mark more, and [we] gave them a chance. They always play us tough, and we gave them a chance to do exactly what they did -- come back and beat us."
Starter Kyle Lohse started out rocky, but he stabilized enough to turn in a quality start. The Pirates opened the game with a single, a double, two sacrifice flies and two more base hits, but Lohse escaped with only two runs on the board. He dodged baserunners in the third and fourth before allowing a run but still minimizing the potential damage in a dangerous fifth.
Kyle McClellan pitched a spotless seventh on seven pitches but was lifted for Dotel to start the eighth. The Cardinals missed out on what would have been their first six-game winning streak since they won eight straight last July.
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.