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Flaherty has rare rough start in loss to Braves

Cards rookie allows season-high 5 earned runs over 4 2/3 innings
MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ATLANTA -- The plan has been scripted for weeks now and executed through the club's fluid use of a sixth starter this month. It will all lead, the Cardinals hope, to a place where Jack Flaherty is rested and ready to take the ball in the team's most crucial game.

What Flaherty couldn't do on Wednesday, however, was lift the Cardinals to a series sweep that would have inched them closer to needing the rookie right-hander on such a stage. Instead, the Braves took a 7-3 victory at SunTrust Park that snapped their four-game skid and ended the Cardinals' eight-game winning streak in Atlanta.

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ATLANTA -- The plan has been scripted for weeks now and executed through the club's fluid use of a sixth starter this month. It will all lead, the Cardinals hope, to a place where Jack Flaherty is rested and ready to take the ball in the team's most crucial game.

What Flaherty couldn't do on Wednesday, however, was lift the Cardinals to a series sweep that would have inched them closer to needing the rookie right-hander on such a stage. Instead, the Braves took a 7-3 victory at SunTrust Park that snapped their four-game skid and ended the Cardinals' eight-game winning streak in Atlanta.

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With the loss, the Cardinals' lead over the Rockies for the second National League Wild Card spot shrunk to one game. The Rockies and Dodgers will wrap up a three-game series in Los Angeles later Wednesday night.

"If we win series, we'll be fine," manager Mike Shildt said before the Cardinals headed back to St. Louis for their final homestand. "Two out of three against a club leading their division? We feel pretty good about it."

For Flaherty, the hiccup came as he pushed his cumulative season total to 174 2/3 innings, a new career high. The Cardinals remain cognizant of that number, but not concerned about it. And Flaherty was adamant afterward that workload remains a non-factor.

"I don't know how many times I have to say that I feel great," he said. "I just didn't execute when it came down to it. There's no tired or nothing. There's no time to be tired right now."

The Cardinals tried to be proactive against a potential late-season fade by building in extra rest where they could this month. On Wednesday, Shildt also saw no reason to push Flaherty deeper than 80 pitches, which he reached after allowing three straight Braves hitters to reach with two outs in the fifth.

It marked the third time this season -- and the first since the All-Star break -- that Flaherty didn't finish at least five innings. He allowed a season-high five earned runs.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman was a particular nuisance. Freeman tallied three hits off Flaherty, including a two-run homer in the fourth and an RBI single in the fifth. The latter came after Flaherty issued a pair of walks. The Braves scored three runs in that frame.

Video: STL@ATL: Freeman rips an RBI single to right

"That's the guy you want to stay away from in those situations," Flaherty said. "I put myself in that spot. Those are situations you want to avoid."

With Flaherty lined up to start an elimination game for the club -- whether that be a must-win game on the final Sunday of the regular season, a possible Game 163 or the NL Wild Card Game -- the Cardinals need him to regroup in a hurry. Flaherty is due to start next in what sets up to be a critical series against the Brewers.

After going 5-0 behind Flaherty in August, the Cardinals have lost all four of his September starts. His ERA this month is 4.35.

"I have no concern about Jack -- the way he goes about it, the way [the ball] is coming out," Shildt said. "He had a little bit of a rougher inning, but he was really good through four. When he pitches, I love it. I think he's going to be just fine."

The Cardinals' offense, which broke out for 19 runs in the first two games of the series, didn't back Flaherty with much support early. Braves starter Touki Toussaint held the Cards scoreless until Harrison Bader knocked a solo homer in the fifth. Runs off Tyler Webb and Brett Cecil helped Atlanta fortify its lead as the Cards tried to chip away late.

Video: STL@ATL: Bader belts a towering solo shot to left

MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Down by four, the Cardinals still managed to bring the potential tying run to the plate twice against Braves closer A.J. Minter. Jose Martinez got the first crack, but was fooled when Minter began the at-bat with three straight changeups. Martinez swung through two of them before eventually missing a cutter and striking out. Of the 959 pitches Minter had thrown entering the day, only 19 had been changeups.

"Knowing they were facing a fastball hitter, they just tried something else," Martinez said. "He threw changeups and one [cutter]. I wasn't expecting that at all. I could have had a better at-bat."

Paul DeJong then popped out to end the game and strand the bases loaded. The Cardinals finished 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

Video: STL@ATL: Minter gets DeJong to pop up to end the game

SOUND SMART
With his second of six strikeouts on Wednesday, Flaherty moved past Shelby Miller and into third place on the franchise's all-time single-season rookie strikeout list. Flaherty, who has struck out 174 batters this season, will likely finish his rookie year trailing only Rick Ankiel (194) and Dizzy Dean (191).

Tweet from @Cardinals: With his 170th strikeout this season, @Jack9Flaherty passes Shelby Miller (169 in 2013) for 3rd all-time in #STLCards single-season history for rookies. Only Dizzy Dean (191) and Rick Ankiel (194) are ahead. pic.twitter.com/FqNjkqAUMS

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Atlanta scored its third run in the fifth inning with two outs after a replay review overturned what would have been Yadier Molina's 12th baserunner caught stealing this season. A closer look, however, showed that Freeman slid in before the tag at second base, and Ender Inciarte was able to scamper home on the back end of the double steal.

Video: STL@ATL: Freeman steals base after call overturned

UP NEXT
The Cardinals will open their final homestand of the regular season on Friday with a 7:15 p.m. CT game against the Giants at Busch Stadium. John Gant will make the start following the club's off-day to face Madison Bumgarner. Matt Carpenter is expected back in the leadoff spot after a day off on Wednesday, and right-hander Giovanny Gallegos will be added to the 'pen before the series opener.

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.

St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Flaherty