ST. LOUIS -- A series billed as a big one in the Cardinals' quest for a repeat berth in the postseason got off to a bad start, soured by a sloppy fourth inning and compounded by a strike zone the Cards barked about all night.
This one landed in the ever-growing file of close-game losses, as the 38,689 fans at Busch Stadium on Friday watched the Cardinals quietly drop a 2-1 series opener to the Pirates. On a night when one of the biggest stirs came in the form of Jose Oquendo's sixth-inning ejection, St. Louis sank another game behind the Bucs in the National League Wild Card race.
That deficit, with five games remaining between the two clubs, now sits at two. It will not, however, be erased unless the Cardinals can find a way to flip their fortunes in tight games. The team is now 17-34 in games determined by two or fewer runs.
The Pirates? They hold a 36-24 record in such affairs.
"We're giving ourselves chances to win ballgames, but for some reason or another, we're not making the big pitch when we need to or getting the big hit," Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook said. "We're in a lot of ballgames. That's good. We just have to find a way to win them."
The Cardinals' unraveling was brief, but costly. That's because Pirates starter James McDonald, who some surmised could be pitching to keep his spot in the rotation, dominated on the other end.
Owner of an 8.71 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, McDonald faced the minimum through four innings and never allowed a St. Louis baserunner to reach third. The Cardinals tallied only two hits off the right-hander, who sailed through the sixth with a pitch count of 87.
"I think he has a good breaking ball," Matt Holliday said. "His command was better than it's been lately. I know he's struggled with it lately, but he pitched well tonight."
Much to St. Louis' delight, Pittsburgh, in an attempt to extend its lead, pulled McDonald for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh. But by then, the Pirates had assumed a 2-0 lead that the Cards would only seriously threaten once.
Both of the Pirates' runs came in the fourth, an inning that disintegrated with a run-scoring wild pitch, a run-scoring passed ball and an error.
It began with a walk and consecutive singles, loading the bases with none out for catcher Michael McKenry. During the at-bat, Westbrook uncorked a pitch that skipped to the backstop. All three runners advanced.
"A terrible sinker," Westbrook said of the one that got away.
McKenry then reached on a Rafael Furcal error, after which a passed ball by catcher Tony Cruz allowed another run to score. Cruz, starting in place of an injured Yadier Molina, and Westbrook had obvious challenges getting signs in sync early, though Westbrook said miscommunication was not a factor on that pitch.
A Pirates baserunning blunder and subsequent double play helped Westbrook evade additional damage, but it was damage enough to snap Westbrook's personal five-game losing streak. And like Kyle Lohse the night before, Westbrook was unable to join Lance Lynn as the staff's second 13-game winner.
"Against him, we'll take what we can get and move on," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Westbrook. "There isn't another team that wouldn't want him to pitch for them."
Westbrook went 7 2/3 innings and allowed only one more hit after that fourth inning. He, with some help from reliever Marc Rzepczynski, worked around that leadoff double By Pedro Alvarez in the eighth.
It appeared, though, as if Westbrook did not receive the same assistance the Pirates did from home-plate umpire Lance Barrett. Several Cardinals players took exception at Barrett's generous strike zone, and Oquendo, watching from the third-base coaching box, became so fed up that he was ejected.
"We were just trying to make it as fair as we can, that's all," Oquendo said. "Let the players compete and don't mess with that. Let the competition be with the players."
Oquendo's verbal complaint came during Jon Jay's at-bat in the sixth. He had to be restrained by Matheny before eventually retreating to the clubhouse.
"It was significantly higher than what we've had this season, from our angle," manager Mike Matheny said. "He establishes a zone. It doesn't mean we have to like it. I don't want guys swinging at those pitches. I don't want them swinging at chest-high curveballs. Nothing's going to happen except popping them up anyhow."
A high strike zone was also little use for Westbrook, a sinkerballer who makes a living by pitching low.
The Cardinals avoided being shut out by scraping a run across against reliever Chris Resop in the seventh, though, as has been a theme in the team's close game troubles, they left another on the table.
David Freese followed Carlos Beltran's leadoff single with a double. With three chances to get both runners home, Daniel Descalso lofted a flyball that was too shallow to score Beltran. Tony Cruz drove home one with a groundout. A popout by Furcal ended the inning.
Matheny's decision not to pinch-hit Skip Schumaker, who is hitting .390 with runners in scoring position, for Descalso there or against Joel Hanrahan in the ninth, when the tying run was at first with two out, drew attention afterward.
Matheny said he never strongly considered utilizing Schumaker in the seventh. As for the ninth-inning spot, he chose to play to the numbers. Descalso had two hits in six previous at-bats against Hanrahan. Had Descalso reached, Schumaker, Matheny said, would have batted next.
"He was ready to go," Matheny said. "It ended up that Danny really put together a tough at-bat and it almost paid off."
Descalso flied out on the eighth pitch of the at-bat to end the game.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.