ST. LOUIS -- Joe Kelly gave the Cardinals a chance.
The right-hander, making his Major League debut, allowed one run over five innings, but the offense struggled once again and the bullpen couldn't hold down the Indians late.
Closer Jason Motte surrendered a three-run home run to Jason Kipnis in the ninth inning as the Indians pulled out a 4-1 victory on Sunday before a sellout crowd of 43,400 at Busch Stadium.
"Right now I don't think we're playing the best baseball," said right fielder Carlos Beltran, whose solo home run in the first inning accounted for the lone St. Louis run. "I felt that we have been battling injuries and things like that, but at the same time we just need to find a way to play better. There's no excuses. We have a good team. We just have to find a way to put it together."
The Cardinals scored just five runs in the three games against the Indians to begin the nine-game homestand, losing two of the three games.
"We got down to the end and we had opportunities, especially right there in the eighth," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We had the situation that we wanted. We had the guys up there we wanted. Sometimes it happens. Other times it don't."
Kelly, who was called up to make the start after Jaime Garcia went on the disabled list, had a successful debut. He allowed one run as he scattered seven hits, struck out four and walked one among his 79 pitches (51 strikes).
"It felt like another start," Kelly said. "The first inning, it didn't really hit me. The second inning, it really hit me. A guy got on and it was like, 'Wow, this is really happening.' I didn't have all my stuff working. I was fastball-changeup and couldn't really throw the curve for a strike. I tried to just battle and give my team a chance to help me out."
The rookie right-hander retired the first batter he faced, Shin-soo Choo, with a full-count fly out to left field. He surrendered singles to Asdrubal Cabrera and Kipnis, but worked out of trouble by striking out Carlos Santana on an 83-mph changeup and getting Michael Brantley to line out to third base.
Beltran gave the rookie hurler some breathing room with a solo home run hit 428 feet to right-center field in the first inning, his National League-leading 18th of the season and second in as many days.
The Indians tied the score in the third. Choo led off with a ground-rule double to left field, took third on a groundout and made it 1-1 on an RBI sacrifice fly by Santana.
Kelly left runners stranded in the fourth and fifth innings and was relieved by Victor Marte after surrendering a leadoff single to Michael Brantley -- who extended his hitting streak to 18 games -- in the sixth.
The Cardinals' bullpen did its job in relief of the rookie. Marte, Marc Rzepczynski and Mitchell Boggs tossed three shutout innings to keep St. Louis in the game, but the offense couldn't get going against Ubaldo Jimenez.
The Cardinals had a golden opportunity in the eighth against reliever Vinnie Pestano. Pinch-hitter Tyler Greene worked a one-out walk and stole second base. Then Rafael Furcal and Beltran followed with walks to load the bases, but Pestano struck out Yadier Molina and Allen Craig to end the threat.
"He was throwing a pretty good cutter," Craig said. "I made the mistake of being a little too aggressive in that at-bat. If I had it back, I would not have done the check swing on that first pitch. That would have put me in a better spot. But I'm going to go down being aggressive right there in that spot."
Motte couldn't keep the score tied in the ninth. After pinch-hitter Johnny Damon singled, Cabrera drew a one-out walk and Kipnis blasted a three-run shot into the right-field seats for his 10th homer.
"He kind of fought off a couple pitches away," Motte said. "Me and Yadi [Molina] were thinking, 'Let's go in.' He was just able to tuck his hands in, did a good piece of hitting and was able to get the barrel on it and keep it fair. You have to tip your cap."
Chris Perez allowed a one-out single to David Freese in the bottom of the ninth, but retired Daniel Descalso and Adron Chambers to convert his 20th consecutive save.
It was a frustrating finish to the three-game series. The Cardinals' No. 3-5 hitters -- Molina, Craig and Matt Adams -- were a combined 0 for 12 with five strikeouts. Matheny is hopeful that Matt Holliday, out for the second day in a row because of back spasms, will return to the lineup on Tuesday.
"Would I like to see us more consistent? There's no question," Matheny said. "But guys are grinding. They are fighting. I'm going to continue to stay optimistic, because that's what I believe. It's not some façade. I think it's only a matter of time before we really take off, and I know those guys believe it too. We're playing less than our best baseball and we've still got a fighting chance. When it takes off, it's going to be a good run. We need to get it going soon."
Nate Latsch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.