ST. LOUIS -- It was only four days ago that the Cardinals became co-leaders in the National League Central and appeared poised for a statement homestand to open the second half.
They have since hit a snag.
The Rays finished off a two-game sweep of St. Louis with a 3-0 win at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night, leaving the Cardinals with a losing home stay and even with the Pirates in the division's second spot. A sellout crowd of 43,564 saw another strong start from Lance Lynn, but one that was wasted by another lackluster offensive performance.
"It was a really good start and a rough finish," manager Mike Matheny said. "The last two days, they just had our number."
Right-hander Alex Cobb stole the show, tossing seven scoreless innings and driving in the winning run with the first hit of his Major League career. He even shook off being hit by a pitch on his elbow in the fourth en route to striking out 10. His split-finger fastball was especially tricky for the Cardinals' batters to time.
"I threw my normal 10-pitch touch and feel yesterday off the mound and it was horrible," Cobb said. "I was really not looking forward to coming into tonight. I got into a groove once I started playing catch today. I felt the mechanical issue that I addressed was the key to the problems I'd been having. Once I started playing catch, it's just like an 'ah-ha' moment."
The Cardinals advanced a runner into scoring position only twice against Cobb and seriously threatened to tie the game once. That came in the sixth, when Matt Carpenter moved to third with a leadoff double and Kolten Wong's sacrifice. Matt Holliday made contact against Cobb for the first time all evening, but his groundball to third set up a play at home to retire Carpenter.
"I thought it was a big sequence," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "A lot of really nifty, great stuff tonight."
Cobb (6-6) followed by retiring the final four batters he faced, including one he technically didn't. Jon Jay drew a walk with two out in the seventh, but wasn't awarded it. The ball-and-strike tally on the scoreboard was off, and home-plate umpire Dan Bellino didn't correct it when Jay briefly contested.
Instead, the at-bat continued and eventually ended with a strikeout.
"It was a weird play and a weird situation," Jay said afterward.
It also was a critical one, as a walk would have brought the tying run to the plate in a two-run game.
"I missed it," said Matheny, who could have asked Bellino to review the count had he known it was wrong.
That strikeout was the final one for Cobb and one of 15 for three Rays pitchers. Five players struck out at least twice, including Holliday and Wong three times. It was the team's highest strikeout total since the Cardinals fanned 17 times against Milwaukee on April 29.
The Cardinals have struck out at least 10 times each of the last three games (all losses) and have gone 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position during that stretch. The three-game losing streak matches a season-long for the Cardinals, who have now endured five of that length.
"We saw this team in Tampa [in June], and it looks like a completely different team than we see right now," Matheny said of the Rays, now 13-4 this month. "They're playing with a lot of confidence. They're getting those big hits."
Lynn pitched the Cardinals into the seventh despite having a pitch count of 75 through four innings. Twenty-nine of those came in the second, when the Rays took an early lead. After reaching on an infield single and advancing on a wild pitch, Yunel Escobar scored easily as Cobb lined a double to right field.
Cobb was hitless in seven career at-bats before the hit. It was the second RBI produced by a Rays pitcher in this series, too, as Jake Odorizzi plated one on Tuesday with an executed safety squeeze.
"He swung at a ball at his neck," said Lynn, now 11-7. "I was trying not to throw the ball down the middle, trying to get him to chase a ball up and he poked a ball down the right-field line."
Lynn went on to strike out seven, including four on a called third strike by Bellino, who had players chirping in his ear about the strike zone throughout the evening. One (Escobar) was ejected before night's end.
The Rays chased Lynn from the game in the seventh after Wong muffed a potential inning-ending double play. The error cost Lynn an unearned run. Still, in 15 of his 21 starts, Lynn has allowed two or fewer runs. The Rays scored again off Sam Freeman in the ninth.
"I knew early on that he had his good stuff and that I needed to be better than I was tonight," Lynn said. "Some nights you just get outpitched, even though you pitch all right."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.