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Cardinals' comeback hopes fall short vs. Bucs

MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ST. LOUIS -- One last chance to pad their National League Wild Card position by knocking around a team already out of postseason contention passed the Cardinals by on Wednesday afternoon in much the same way too many have lately -- with an assortment of run-scoring opportunities left untapped.

The Pirates held on for a 4-3 win at Busch Stadium to salvage something from their final stop in St. Louis. The Cardinals, in turn, forge ahead on a road that's about to become much more treacherous.

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ST. LOUIS -- One last chance to pad their National League Wild Card position by knocking around a team already out of postseason contention passed the Cardinals by on Wednesday afternoon in much the same way too many have lately -- with an assortment of run-scoring opportunities left untapped.

The Pirates held on for a 4-3 win at Busch Stadium to salvage something from their final stop in St. Louis. The Cardinals, in turn, forge ahead on a road that's about to become much more treacherous.

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With a succession of series against clubs out of postseason contention now over, the Cardinals pivot their attention to the Dodgers, their closest competition for the NL's second Wild Card spot. Los Angeles will arrive in town on Thursday, two games back of the Cards, who themselves sit two games behind the Brewers.

Video: PIT@STL: Poncedeleon fans Reyes for his 6th strikeout

"We're going to have to come out ready, because those guys are hungry for that spot, too," shortstop Paul DeJong said. "What we did to them in L.A. [with a sweep in late August], they remember that."

This upcoming series kicks off a sprint to the finish, during which the Cardinals will face postseason hopefuls Los Angeles, Atlanta, Milwaukee and the Cubs in 13 of their final 16 games.

"We respect our opponent, but our opponent is ourselves," Cards manager Mike Shildt said, downplaying the difficult matchups ahead. "We play our game and prepare to play our game. We execute, and that's how that works."

But it didn't on Wednesday. The Cardinals had a plethora of chances to secure a series sweep, yet, one by one, they faded away.

After Marcell Ozuna's RBI single in the first, the Cardinals went hitless in nine at-bats with a runner on third base. Those included five such chances with less than two outs and two opportunities in the ninth, when DeJong and Matt Carpenter stepped in with the potential tying run 90 feet from home.

Video: PIT@STL: Ozuna smacks an RBI single in the 1st inning

Both struck out against Bucs closer Felipe Vazquez.

"We didn't execute," DeJong said. "That's the reason we lost. We didn't all join efforts and pass the baton."

It's not the first such stumble the Cards have had with their situational hitting as of late. Twice previously during this run of 15 straight games against clubs not bound for October, the Cardinals failed to score after loading the bases with no outs. They lost both by a combined three runs.

The Cards were unable to execute again on Wednesday after Daniel Poncedeleon knocked a leadoff triple in the third.

The collection of missed opportunities, as well as spasms by the bullpen, kept the Cardinals from doing better during the seemingly soft portion of the schedule. They finished the stretch with more wins (eight) than losses (seven), but lost six games by two or fewer runs.

Video: PIT@STL: Wisdom ropes an RBI single to right field

A few more timely hits could have drastically changed that.

"We've left some money on the table, that's for sure," Shildt said.

Poncedeleon wasn't as successful as Pirates starter Jameson Taillon in sidestepping trouble. Though the Pirates didn't tally an extra-base hit, they linked singles to produce three run-scoring innings.

Video: PIT@STL: Adams makes smooth backhand flip for the out

Making a spot start so the Cards could buy others in the rotation an extra day of rest, Poncedeleon gave up two runs over five innings, with seven strikeouts. The Bucs padded their lead with a two-run sixth against reliever Mike Mayers.

"A little upset I couldn't go any deeper, but I was all right with that outing," Poncedeleon said. "The team is hungry, and we want to be in the playoffs. We are pushing hard."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Making his first appearance since Aug. 25, Mayers was more irritated at himself for a play not made than any pitch he threw. With two on and one out in the sixth, Kevin Newman's chopper up the middle hit off Mayers' glove. What could have turned into an inning-ending double play had either Mayers or second baseman Kolten Wong (who was positioned behind him) fielded it cleanly instead became an infield single that loaded the bases. Jacob Stallings followed with a two-run single to put the Pirates ahead, 4-1.

"It got away from me," Mayers said. "I just kind of ended up in no-man's land."

SOUND SMART
Poncedeleon became the first Cardinals player since second baseman Luis Alicea (1988) to register a triple as his first Major League hit. The last Cards pitcher to do so was Todd Worrell two years before that. It hadn't been done by any pitcher since Cubs left-hander Chris Rusin tripled in his MLB debut on Aug. 21, 2012.

Video: PIT@STL: Poncedeleon triples to record 1st MLB hit

"First I made contact, so I was a little surprised. I hadn't had a hit all year," Poncedeleon said. "Once I hit first base, I looked up and saw the left fielder running for the ball, so that's when I turned on the jets, and then I slid into third and was happy I was safe."

HE SAID IT
"The game is the same. Obviously, it does mean a little bit more, but you just have to go out there and play your game. We've been doing it for 140 games at this point, so we have a lot of confidence. We are going to continue to play the same brand of baseball we've been playing the past month and a half or so." -- Harrison Bader, on the upcoming stretch run

UP NEXT
As they jostle for Wild Card positioning, the Cardinals and Dodgers will meet in a four-game series that begins with a 6:15 p.m. CT game on Thursday. Lefty Austin Gomber (5-0, 2.93 ERA) draws the start for St. Louis against Clayton Kershaw (7-5, 2.42 ERA). This will be Kershaw's first appearance against the Cards this season.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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