Weary bullpen turns in ugly ninth as Cards fall to Braves 6-5

Trevor Rosenthal (left), pitching for the fourth straight day, gave the Braves their tying run when he walked Jordan Schafer with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth.

ST. LOUIS — Two steps forward, one step back.

That’s the way it felt Sunday afternoon when the Cardinals came within one pitch of their first five-game winning streak and their first sweep of the season, only to lose 6-5 to the Atlanta Braves.

Closer Trevor Rosenthal, pitching for the fourth straight day, blew his second save chance of the week when he walked Jordan Schafer with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth. With the count full, Schafer fouled off two 98-mph fastballs before he took another one that missed down and in — barely.

"I thought it was a good pitch, one of those pitches that could go either way," Rosenthal said. "I’ve gotten that pitch for a strike before and it’s been called a ball before. It was right there."

Carlos Martinez relieved Rosenthal and, on his second pitch, let in the winning run with a changeup inside and in the dirt that Yadier Molina couldn’t stop, the wild pitch allowing Ryan Doumit to score.

Matt Adams grounded a one-out single up the middle in the Cardinals’ half of the ninth but that was all the offense they could manage off Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.

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"It would have been a big win, no question," said manager Mike Matheny, who now will have an off-day Monday to dwell on the defeat. "Even though it was a slim lead, to have a lead in the ninth, it’s a tough one to lose."

A tight-lipped Matheny took responsibility for over-extending Rosenthal, who had thrown only nine pitches Saturday when converting his third save chance in three days. Martinez, working for a third straight day, also has been busy.

"I pushed them and it didn’t work," Matheny said. "One pitch away."

3 UP

— Jaime Garcia. He turned in a strong effort in his first start in a year and a day. Coming back from shoulder surgery, Garcia went seven innings and allowed four runs on five hits with zero walks and five strikeouts. He gave up long bases-empty home runs to Freddie Freeman in the first and Justin Upton in the third, and two runs in the sixth when the Braves came up with three consecutive hits. Otherwise, he looked as good as ever. His fastball reached 92 mph and he was efficient with his pitches, throwing 83, including 54 strikes.

— Speed. A slower runner than Peter Bourjos — which means just about everyone — might not have reached base after striking out in the second inning. But when strike three squirted underneath Braves catcher Gerald Laird, Bourjos zipped to first to trigger a three-run, two-out rally. Garcia followed Bourjos by singling on the first pitch he saw and Matt Carpenter walked, loading the bases for Kolten Wong. He promptly cleared them with a double into the left-field corner that gave the Cardinals a 3-1 lead.

— Matt Carpenter. The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter entered the game with his on-base percentage down to .355 but reached based in all five of his plate appearances to push it up to .371. Carpenter singled twice, walked a season-high three times and scored his team-leading 30th run.

3 DOWN

— Grounding into double plays. The Cardinals hit into three rally killers and the Braves thought they hit into a fourth. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez’s challenge, however, was denied after first-base umpire Chris Guccione ruled that Freeman was pulled off first on a throw from second. Still, the Cardinals took over the NL lead in GIDPs, with 41.

— Matt Holliday. Four times he came to bat with a runner in scoring position but, on this day, he failed to drive in a run. He was hit by a pitch in one RISP situation but grounded out twice and popped up in the others. Holliday entered Sunday’s game ranked second in the NL with a .409 batting average with RISP and had driven in a run in 10 of the Cardinals’ first 17 home games. He still leads the Cardinals with a .383 RISP average.

— Jorge Rondon. The rookie right-hander was sent back to the minors Sunday to make room for Garcia on the 25-man roster. It was Rondon’s second call-up but he still has yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues. Lefty reliever Sam Freeman was packing in the clubhouse after the game, evidently on his way to Memphis to make room for Jason Motte’s return. Motte is expected to come off the disabled list Tuesday, a year and a week after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.