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Pham's HR sparks late rally, but Cards fall short

Slugger's 3-run homer caps Cards' 5-run seventh, but Braves hang on
MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ST. LOUIS -- Optimism bubbled as Busch Stadium emptied late Tuesday night. The Cardinals had run their winning streak to four by battering one of the American League's top starting pitchers, and there was a sense that a move up the National League Central standings could be brewing.

It gave the Cardinals a glimpse of what they could be. What they are, however, is still a work in progress.

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ST. LOUIS -- Optimism bubbled as Busch Stadium emptied late Tuesday night. The Cardinals had run their winning streak to four by battering one of the American League's top starting pitchers, and there was a sense that a move up the National League Central standings could be brewing.

It gave the Cardinals a glimpse of what they could be. What they are, however, is still a work in progress.

View Full Game Coverage

Since landing that knockout punch against Indians ace Corey Kluber, the Cardinals have played from behind. Their offense, boosted on Sunday by a relieved Tommy Pham, made a spirited effort to flip the game late, but St. Louis still skidded to a fourth straight defeat with a 6-5 loss to the Braves. The losing streak matches the Cardinals' longest this season.

"People don't understand how hard this game is, and how hard it is to be consistent," second baseman Kolten Wong said. "You're going to have it some days, some weeks, some months, and you're not going to have it some days, some weeks, some months. Anytime we can come back from a 6-0 deficit that late in the game, you know that we have that willpower to do it."

Problem was, the Cardinals spent the entire series grappling to catch up. The weekend matchup against the NL East's top club drew three sellout crowds, but fans of the home team never saw the Cardinals hold a lead. That was in large part a credit to Atlanta's starters, who held the Cardinals to seven hits over a combined 17 2/3 scoreless innings.

All 10 of the runs the Cardinals scored came in the seventh inning or later -- and none before the Cardinals trailed by at least five.

"I believe we're better than what we've shown," Pham said, after recording his first hits since June 19. "We just have to keep grinding it out."

Sunday's outcome hinged on the Braves' five-run sixth, which interrupted an otherwise strong start from John Gant. One day after Nick Markakis keyed a victory by turning a nine-pitch at-bat into a grand slam, Freddie Freeman stung Gant with a two-run blast to end an eight-pitch battle. Gant left Freeman a hanging changeup that the All-Star first baseman tattooed 426 feet.

Video: ATL@STL: Freeman belts towering 2-run homer to right

"I think it all came down to just one bad pitch, and that was to Freeman," said Gant, who had allowed one home run in 33 2/3 innings prior to Sunday's start. "He did what he gets paid to do with it."

The home run sparked a five-run frame, during which Jose Martinez's defensive play was also once again exposed. Martinez failed to get an out on a ground ball he fielded near first, and a bobble cost the Cards another possible out at third. Two runs scored as a result.

Video: ATL@STL: Acuna comes home, scores on fielder's choice

Those proved costly when the Cardinals countered with their own five-run seventh off a wobbly Atlanta bullpen. One inning after snapping an 0-for-31 skid with a single, Pham took Peter Moylan deep for a three-run blast to pull the Cardinals to within one.

Martinez followed with a single, but the Braves retired the next seven batters to secure their first sweep at Busch Stadium since 2012.

"We played well early on [in the homestand] and [then had] a couple rough ones here," manager Mike Matheny said. "[We] ran into a hot team. Ran into some good pitching. And we made some mistakes that we have to fix."

Video: ATL@STL: Matheny on Pham, falling short

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
All the hand-wringing and extra time spent working out a kink in his swing finally produced some positive results for Pham. He ended the Majors' longest active hitless streak by a position player with a sixth-inning single that narrowly eluded leaping second baseman Ozzie Albies.

Video: ATL@STL: Pham singles to break 0-31 streak

Pham then connected for his first home run -- a 414-foot blast to center -- to notch just his second multi-hit game since June 7.

"It felt good to finally barrel up a ball and not get caught," Pham said. "I've been feeling like I've at least been controlling the strike zone. [Friday], I had some good swings. Yesterday, I hit a hard-hit grounder to short. I didn't come around it. I stayed through it, so that's a good sign. And today, I finally got some hits."

HE SAID IT
"Well, it doesn't help that I've hit .200 the past two months. So you can blame me." -- Pham, when asked what has been holding this team back from getting on a roll

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
The Cardinals tried to soften the Braves' big sixth with the help of a replay review, but they were unsuccessful in challenging a safe call at third base. The play began with Martinez cutting off a throw from the outfield in an attempt to get Ronald Acuna Jr. as he raced from first to third on Charlie Culberson's RBI single. Martinez bobbled the ball before firing it to third, and Acuna was ruled safe. A review of the bang-bang play stood as called, and Acuna eventually scored the fourth run of the inning.

Video: ATL@STL: Cardinals challenge safe call at third base

UP NEXT
The Cardinals' string of series against first-place teams will conclude in Arizona, where the D-backs will host St. Louis in a three-game set that begins Monday. Right-hander Carlos Martinez (4-4, 3.22 ERA) will look to build upon the five scoreless innings he pitched to close out his last start as he opposes D-backs lefty Robbie Ray (3-0, 4.01 ERA). The Cardinals will also be joined in Arizona by outfielder Tyler O'Neill, who will fill an open roster spot while Dexter Fowler takes paternity leave. First pitch for the opener is scheduled for 8:40 p.m. CT.

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, Tommy Pham