ST. LOUIS -- Thursday marked the second time this homestand that the Cardinals have positioned themselves to collect a series sweep. And much like the first, missed opportunities dissolved those chances.
The Cardinals' inability to sink opposing starter Erik Bedard early came into play late as the Pirates methodically worked their way back into the game and then in front. Pittsburgh held on for a 6-3 win in front of 40,601 at Busch Stadium.
The Cards struck out 17 times in the loss and left 12 runners on base.
"We've talked about it before," manager Mike Matheny said. "Timely hitting is one of those key ingredients to hitting, and we didn't get as many of them as we needed."
Four times now the Cardinals have won the first two games of a series only to drop the finale. That leaves the club still in search of its first sweep.
"You want to complete what you started," said starter Jake Westbrook, who allowed four runs in 6 1/3 innings. "We just haven't seemed to find a way to do that so far this year."
After teeing off for 22 runs in the first two games of the series, the Cardinals seemed poised to continue their bashing of Pirates pitching. Two-out RBI doubles from David Freese and Allen Craig put the Cardinals ahead, 2-0, in the first.
An inning later, Bedard loaded the bases and fell behind 3-0 to No. 3 hitter Matt Holliday.
Holliday took two called strikes -- the second of which he felt was high -- to push the count full. After fouling off three more pitches, Holliday bounced out weakly to Bedard to end the frame.
"They had some early momentum," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "and he stopped it."
That was the last time the Cardinals would seriously threaten against Bedard.
"I think everything went right for him as far as hitting the right spots and changing speeds at the right times," said Tyler Greene. "I think it was just one of those moments where everything came together for him."
Bedard began a string of seven consecutive strikeouts the next inning, and he finished with 11. No Pirates pitcher had ever previously struck out seven straight.
The bullpen tacked on another six, making Pittsburgh the first team to strike out that many Cardinals in a nine-inning game since Sept. 10, 1989.
The Cardinals also had to battle Bedard's maddening pace. One of the slowest workers in the league, Bedard was as deliberate between pitches as anyone the Cardinals have faced this year. That was especially the case early, when runners were swarming the basepaths.
"You do what you think is going to make you effective, and I'm sure there was a method to what he was trying to do," Matheny said. "Apparently it worked."
The Cardinals collected only three hits after the second. In the meantime, the Pirates were tacking on runs. After Pedro Alvarez put Pittsburgh ahead, 3-2, with a two-run, sixth-inning homer, Pittsburgh scored one run in each of the innings that followed.
The first four runs came off Westbrook, who lacked the repeated groundouts that he was accustomed to seeing in April. It was an indicator of Westbrook's sinker being too often elevated.
Alvarez singled and scored Pittsburgh's first run when Clint Barmes' liner caromed off Freese's glove and down the left-field line. Alvarez then blasted his seventh home run of the season in his next at-bat. He scored six of the Pirates' 16 runs in the series, and drove in five.
"I wanted to still be aggressive with my fastball, and I think if I make a good sinker down in the zone, I get the groundball I'm looking for," Westbrook said of the pitch Alvarez drove out. "It was just up. When you make mistakes like that, hitters hurt you like that."
Westbrook ended up allowing as many earned runs in this start as he had in his first four starts combined. He has now lost both starts he's made against the Pirates this year, and is 0-5 with a 5.06 ERA in 10 career appearances (six starts) against them.
Pittsburgh is the only team that Westbrook has made at least four appearances against but has yet to beat.
"I don't know. I can't explain it," Westbrook said. "I felt like I pitched pretty well today. It just seems like they find a way to get that one hit or that one thing that cost me and cost our team."
The Cardinals trailed, 4-2, when they threatened to inch closer in the seventh. Holliday came up in another run-scoring spot, but he followed consecutive one-out walks with a flyout. After reliever Juan Cruz loaded the bases, Allen Craig grounded out to end the inning.
St. Louis left another runner aboard in the eighth and had the potential tying run come to the plate in the ninth. Matt Carpenter struck out swinging to end the game.
"We were one pitch away from really making something happen [early]," Matheny said. "We felt like we really had [Bedard] on the ropes. That's what good pitchers do -- they limit the damage."
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.