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07/31/08 11:48 PM ET

Early lead fades as Cards lose finale

Pineiro knocked around, St. Louis unable to sweep Atlanta

ATLANTA -- Joel Pineiro bounced off the mound and made his way toward the third-base line. The Cardinals right-hander was barking at himself again and slapping the inside of his glove at another pitch that had missed its spot. Jeff Francoeur passed him, as the Braves' right fielder raced home from first base on a run-scoring double by pitcher Mike Hampton.

Upon returning to the mound, Pineiro stepped off the rubber and took a few steps backward. Head down, he moved some dirt with the tip of his cleat. He was searching for answers.

Seems even he is befuddled by his recent struggles.

Pineiro closed a forgettable July with another less-than-desirable start, laboring through six innings and again getting knocked around in the Cardinals' 9-4 loss to the Braves on Thursday night.

"I wish I knew [what was wrong] so I could stop doing it," Pineiro said. "It's a struggle. I think I had good stuff, but I'm not executing, and I'm not pitching the way I'm capable of going out there and pitching. I let my team down and myself down.

"Hopefully, I go out there in my next start and turn it around. I need to, for me and for the team. It hasn't been good times lately," he added.

No, it certainly has not.

Pineiro allowed six runs and 10 hits, the most damaging a two-run homer by rookie Clint Sammons that gave the Braves a 6-4 lead in the sixth inning. It was the fourth straight outing in which Pineiro has allowed at least 10 hits, a statistic he blames on missing up in the zone with his pitches.

"He shows you what he's capable of doing," manager Tony La Russa said. "He's just got to do it more often."

In six starts this month, Pineiro has allowed 56 hits and 24 runs in 33 innings. That amounts to a 6.55 ERA. Entering Thursday's start, opponents were batting .380 against him.

But more troubling than the barrage of hits he allows is his inability to hang onto leads. Pineiro has made 18 starts this season, and he has not held a lead in only two of those outings. He was handed two leads Thursday and promptly gave them away within an inning.

"I've been bad, I can't put it in other words," said Pineiro, who added that he was fully healthy after enduring two stints on the disabled list earlier this season.

"I haven't been executing," he continued. "Yeah, there's a couple of starts that got away that I could have gotten a win, but my job is to go out there and give the team a chance to win, and if I'm not doing that, that's why the numbers are the way they are right now."

If nothing else, Pineiro is logging innings, which was what St. Louis needed Thursday night with its bullpen thin.

The Cardinals decided earlier in the day that they could not shore up their bullpen at a reasonable cost, instead deciding to carry on with the pieces they currently have in place. That decision didn't bother outfielder Joe Mather, who said the non-move could serve as a "uniting" force as St. Louis vies for a playoff berth over the final two months.

But that didn't appear to be the case Thursday. After the Cardinals staged late-game rallies against a tiring Braves relief corps in the series' first three games, reliever Kelvin Jimenez watched Atlanta score two runs in the seventh on run-scoring doubles to push its lead to 8-4.

With the loss, the Cardinals dropped five games back of the National League Central-leading Cubs, but remained in a virtual tie with the Brewers for the NL Wild Card lead. They narrowly missed sweeping the Braves in a four-game road series for the first time since 1946.

"We gave it a shot," La Russa said. "You don't ever enjoy getting beat, but we tried and did a lot of good things."

The Cardinals jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a two-run double by Albert Pujols, who has at least one extra-base hit in each of his past six games. And despite pounding Hampton, the Braves left-hander, for four runs and seven hits in five innings, the Cardinals were unable to sustain a big inning that could have put the game out of reach.

Ryan Lavner is an associate reporter at MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.