Cardinals stumble, but division lead stays at two

Cardinals stumble, but division lead stays at two

MILWAUKEE -- On a day when the Cardinals officially secured a spot in the postseason, they were clear in their insistence that they remain in pursuit of much more.

A division title remains dangled for the taking, but with a three-error night at Miller Park, the Cardinals stepped no closer to snaring it. Seeking their first road sweep since May, the Cardinals instead stumbled to a 6-4 loss to the Brewers in front of 27,389 on Sunday.

Having dominated the Brewers all season -- the Cardinals finished with a 14-5 advantage -- St. Louis sputtered in its final regular-season road game of the season. The club finishes with a record of 43-38 away from Busch Stadium, where they now return clinging to a two-game lead over National League Central foes Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

After the game, manager Mike Matheny gathered the team together to recognize what has already been accomplished while also stressing what still can come. Postseason hats were distributed; none were being worn.

"I think we would rather celebrate something more than a one-game possibility," said Matt Holliday, who was scratched from the lineup due to back spasms. "I think everybody's got their mind set on winning the division and celebrating that."

The magic number for the organization's first division title since 2009 sits at five. Six home games remain on the team's schedule.

"It's a big accomplishment [to be in the playoffs], obviously," said starter Joe Kelly. "But we still have more that we want to do. Everybody in here knows what we really want and that's to win a pennant."

Kelly picked up his first road loss of the season and actually allowed more runs in this seven-inning start than he had in his six road starts combined since becoming a permanent member of the rotation. Since the start of July, Kelly had given up just three earned runs in 34 2/3 road innings.

On Sunday, he'd be charged with six, three of which were earned.

Kelly got in his own way in the first two innings, and the Brewers capitalized by racing out to a 4-0 lead. Three of the first four Brewers hitters tallied a hit, including Aramis Ramirez, who drove in his sixth run of the series.

With runners on the corners, Kelly induced a bouncer back to the mound. Instead of throwing home to try and get Jonathan Lucroy -- who left from third base on contact -- Kelly eyed the inning-ending double play. Matt Carpenter had a ways to go to cover second, which foiled the attempt and allowed the second runner to score.

"Even though [Carlos Gomez] is fast, I thought we could turn two there," Kelly said. "It's one run. Early in the game, you want to go for two and see what happens."

An inning later, errors by third baseman David Freese and Kelly -- who sailed a throw over first base with two outs -- allowed a pair of unearned runs to cross. This would be the first game all season in which the Cardinals committed three errors.

"For the most part, our defense has improved," Matheny said. "It seems like they come in bunches, if we have an error we end up having a couple that turn into runs. From here on out, we have to play clean baseball. They know that."

The Cardinals pecked away at the four-run hole, beginning with Carpenter's solo homer in the third. Carpenter reached base four times in total and now sits four hits shy of 200.

Three straight hitters reached with two out in the fifth, though all would be left there when Matt Adams hit into the Brewers' exaggerated infield shift. Three more batters reached consecutively to start the sixth. That, along with a resurfacing blister on his right index finger, chased Wily Peralta from the game.

"I was trying to stay with it as long as I can," Peralta said, "but … I pushed it a little too much and it got worse."

The scoring opportunity would not be squandered. Sacrifice flies from Shane Robinson and Kelly brought the Cardinals to within one.

But after feasting against Brewers relief pitching in the first two games of the series (10 runs in seven innings), the Cardinals could not find enough late-inning momentum again. They also watched the deficit swell.

With the bullpen still recovering from extra-inning games on Thursday and Friday, Matheny opted to stick with an efficient Kelly for the seventh. Kelly had just snuck through a scoreless sixth thanks to his own diving tag on Gomez, which ended a rundown between third and home. Kelly scuffed up his hand and forearm on the dive but shooed the trainer back to the dugout as he insisted he continue.

He finished seven innings with a pitch count of 95, but not until after the Brewers tacked on two insurance runs.

"Things were pointing to letting him pitch," Matheny said. "Unfortunately, they got the last couple [runs] that put the exclamation on it."

Those two runs proved critical when the Cardinals began to piece together a spirited comeback in the ninth. After three straight two-out hits off Milwaukee closer Jim Henderson, Adams came to the plate as the potential go-ahead run. He took a called third strike to end the game, sending the Cardinals to just their second loss in Kelly's last 11 starts.

"I don't like this series. I didn't like this series from Day 1 with the Cardinals fans in our house and everything," said Henderson, who earned his 26th save. "They're a tough team, and they're going to the playoffs for a reason, but it always feels good to beat them."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.