ST. LOUIS -- The Astros' season-long struggle to deliver clutch hits with the bases loaded took center stage on Thursday afternoon, when they squandered repeated chances against the Cardinals.
The Astros had the bases full with one out on three occasions and wound up scoring a total of one run in those situations -- on a walk to Brandon Laird in the first inning -- which proved to be costly in 5-4 loss.
In the final National League meeting between the NL Central rivals at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals swept the three-game series to secure their grip on the second NL Wild Card spot. Houston was 4-for-35 with runners in scoring position in the series, including 3-for-14 in the finale.
"That seems to be the story," Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "It's going to take these guys to step up. I think they've got enough at-bats right now, since I've been here, that somebody's got to come up and get a big hit."
Astros starter Bud Norris, who was questionable to even make the start because of flu-like symptoms, suffered his 12th consecutive loss after allowing five runs on six hits and five walks in 5 1/3 innings. The right-hander hasn't won since May 21, a span of 18 starts.
Norris (5-13) gave up a three-run homer to Allen Craig in the first inning and was pulled upon walking two batters after recording one out in the sixth inning when the game was tied at 3. Pinch-hitter Carlos Beltran greeted reliever Wesley Wright with a two-run double to left-center that put the Cardinals ahead, 5-3.
"I gave it everything I had," Norris said. "It's been a tough couple of days, but I went out there and just gave it everything I had. I pitched around a three-run homer in the first on a bad pitch, but like I said, I scrapped my way through it, and I'm just trying to give it everything I've got."
The Astros cut the lead to 5-4 in the seventh on an RBI single by Brandon Barnes, but they squandered a chance to tie the game or even take a lead when J.D. Martinez hit into an inning-ending double play. Houston had the bases loaded with one out in the eighth when reliever Fernando Salas came in and struck out Jose Altuve and Brett Wallace swinging.
"That's the game," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "You get there with arguably their best hitter with Altuve, who is a tough, tough out, and Salas came in and made great pitches."
This season, the Astros are hitting a .127 with the bases loaded, the lowest average in the Majors.
Cardinals closer Jason Motte, working his fifth game in a row, pitched around a leadoff single in the ninth to record his 38th save and strand the tying run at second base.
"We know what they're playing for, but we're not going to hand anything to anyone," Astros outfielder Justin Maxwell said. "We're going to see them again next week [in Houston], so hopefully we can take some games from them then."
Houston had the bases loaded with one out in the first inning against starter and winning pitcher Jaime Garcia (5-7), but Martinez struck out, Laird walked to bring in a run and Carlos Corporan hit into a fielder's choice. The Astros scored twice in the third to tie the game at 3 on RBI hits by Maxwell and Laird.
"We tied the game, and the guys didn't quit," DeFrancesco said. "I'm really proud of the way they're playing. I know they're disappointed in there and the rest of us, too, are working hard to try to get as many wins as we can. That's a good team over there."
Barnes is sure to make the highlight reels once again, having made a tremendous diving catch in center to rob Jon Jay in the first inning, and Maxwell nearly upstaged him with an acrobatic sliding catch in foul territory in the second while Laird crashed into him.
Maxwell said he was determined to catch the ball after Matt Holliday blooped a hit into right field between Maxwell and Altuve one at-bat before Craig's three-run homer.
"I didn't want it to happen again," Maxwell said.
Norris fell to 7-5 lifetime against the Cardinals (4-3 at Busch Stadium) while still battling a blister on his right middle finger that forced him to miss his previous start. The Astros are 1-17 in Norris' previous 18 outings, though he has eight quality starts in that streak.
"We're kind of counting on him to be our ace here, and depending on how you feel, you've got to go out and perform," DeFrancesco said of Norris. "He still gave us a chance to win."