ST. LOUIS -- The dominant season start that made Carlos Martinez's goal of jockeying for Cy Young consideration a tangible possibility has been replaced by a more puzzling reality since his return from the disabled list earlier this month. A pitcher who ascended to among the elite behind the command of a varied arsenal of pitches is now searching for it.
The Cardinals struggled behind Martinez for a third consecutive time on Saturday after he was unable to hold an early lead. The night fizzled into a 6-3 loss to the Cubs, who assured themselves of a series win by scoring four unanswered runs in front of the largest Busch Stadium crowd (47,168) of the season.
The defeat extended the Cardinals' losing streak to a season-long four games, and it ended with Martinez acknowledging that the feel for his two-seam and cut fastballs is still a work in progress, three starts into his return from an injury to his right lat muscle.
"I just need to work a lot in the bullpen [between starts]," Martinez said. "I'm going to try to make adjustments."
One of those was made on Saturday, as Martinez found more consistency with his release point. He leaned on his four-seam fastball in critical spots, but struggled to harness the movement on two of his other typically trusted pitches.
That led to six walks, bringing his total to 18 in 12 2/3 innings since coming back from the DL. He is the only pitcher in the Majors to walk at least five in three consecutive appearances this season.
"He has the ability to pound the zone with the sinker, cutter and slider, and he will," manager Mike Matheny said. "It's just getting into a better spot. ... We know what he's going to look like, and we had a little glimpse of it today of him getting back to the guy he was before he went on the DL. Once we get him there, he's going to be the guy we want on the mound. He's going to get outs and is not going to give up many free bases."
Only one of Saturday's free passes led directly to a run, but they did complicate a five-inning start that required 98 pitches to complete. Martinez, who has now allowed more runs (10) in his last 12 2/3 innings than he did over the 50 innings he pitched before being sidelined, exited with the score tied at 3.
Two innings later, the Cubs took their first lead on Ian Happ's two-out RBI double off reliever Sam Tuivailala. Former Cardinal Jason Heyward offered additional breathing room in the eighth when Jordan Hicks served up his first home run in 32 career appearances.
"Just left the ball down the middle," Hicks said. "That's about all I can say on that. I didn't locate the ball where I wanted to. I wanted to get the ball down, and he put a good swing on it."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Marcell Ozuna lifted the Cardinals to an early lead and further quelled concerns about his sluggish season start with a two-run blast off Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks in the first. He extended his hitting streak to nine games with the 416-foot homer and has clubbed five homers during that span.
"I'm feeling right now at like 80 percent with my approach in the box and how I play the game," said Ozuna, the first Cardinal since Matthew Holliday (2013) to drive in a run in seven straight games. "I'm focused on getting better every day. Working hard in the cage, working harder in batting practice. Trying to find my pitch, trying to have good at bats."
Back in the lineup for the first time since Monday, William Fowler snapped a streak of 16 hitless at-bats with a single in the fourth inning. (He would later score on Martinez's RBI single.) The hit was the first he has tallied off a breaking ball all season. He had previously gone 0-for-30 against offspeed pitches.
HE SAID IT
"Obviously, that's a radical change [from potentially] having first and second, nobody out. That's a shift in momentum, for sure." -- Matheny, on the sixth-inning rally that stalled when Fowler was caught between second and third with no out
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Cardinals came within inches of making the ninth inning much more dramatic but couldn't get an assist from a replay review to extend their rally. Matheny asked for a second look after Cubs third baseman Kristopher Bryant could not make an over-the-head grab on Matt Carpenter's popup along the line in left field. There was not enough video evidence to overturn the call -- which was that the ball was foul -- and Carpenter later ended the at-bat with a strikeout.
Right-hander Jack Flaherty (3-2, 2.96 ERA) will make his first career start against the Cubs on Sunday, when the Cardinals close out their three-game series on ESPN. Flaherty is coming off a win against the Padres in which he allowed one run over 6 1/3 innings. He'll be opposed by lefty Jose Quintana (6-4, 4.09 ERA), who gave up three unearned runs in four innings against the Cardinals on May 4. First pitch is set for 7:08 p.m. CT at Busch Stadium.