ST. LOUIS -- How Joe Kelly's start would be defined on Tuesday hinged on one third-inning pitch. That pitch never came back. And neither did the Cardinals.
A three-run blast by Tyler Colvin wrapped up the night's scoring early in a game that Colorado held on to win, 3-2, at Busch Stadium. Before this win, the Rockies had won only six of their last 25 games.
"Every once in a while, you have those nights where one swing dictates the game," manager Mike Matheny said. "That was the case tonight."
This game exposed what have been a few of the Cardinals' season-long deficiencies. St. Louis is 8-13 in one-run games, and the inability to climb out of deficits has haunted the club all season. Thirty-two times now the Cards have trailed after six innings. They've lost 31 of those games.
And on Tuesday that loss came with the potential tying run left merely 90 feet away.
After Matt Holliday gave the Cardinals an early two-run lead with his 14th home run, seven of the next eight Cardinal hitters to reach base did so with two out.
However, the ninth inning was different, beginning with a nine-pitch at-bat that David Freese capped with a single off Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt, who had blown three of his last five save opportunities. A one-out walk put the potential winning run on base, too.
Freese moved to third on a groundout but ended the night there when Jon Jay took a called third strike.
That capped the club's 0-for-5 night with runners in scoring position. In this series, which is now even, the Cardinals are hitless in 14 chances with runners in scoring position.
"It got interesting in the ninth inning," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "The sequence of pitches to Jon Jay with a runner at third base was really, really good."
That missed opportunity meant that even though Cardinal pitchers didn't allow a hit in seven of nine innings, a string of third-inning mistakes would seal Kelly's first big league loss.
After retiring the first seven batters he faced, Kelly issued a one-out walk to the Rockies' eight-hole hitter in the third. Colorado starter Jeff Francis followed with a so-so sacrifice bunt, leaving catcher Yadier Molina aiming for the lead runner.
"I want Yadi being aggressive," Matheny said. "I want him making that play. You can't have guys out being timid. He had the play right in front of him, and he makes that play almost all the time."
This would not be one of those times. Molina's throw to second was high, and both runners were safe.
Three pitches after Molina's third error of the season -- and after Kelly had jumped in front of Colvin, 0-2 -- the outfielder connected for his second homer in as many nights.
"Terrible," Kelly said of the changeup. "The right pitch. I wanted it. I just threw it bad. At 0-2 it's something you either need to bounce in the dirt or take more off. I didn't do both of those and ended up [giving up] a three-run homer."
Kelly made better pitches to get out of a bases-loaded jam later that inning and again in the fourth. He stayed in through the sixth and has now not allowed more than three runs in any of his five Major League outings.
"He's given us a chance every start," Matheny said. "You can't ask for anything more than that."
There was some good despite the undesired outcome, particularly as it concerned Holliday and the bullpen.
The Cardinals' No. 3 hitter raised his season average, which sat at .267 on June 15, to .313. He's done so by hitting .500 since that date.
Hours after taking out the 'G' in the left-field 'BIG MAC Land' sign during batting practice, Holliday took Francis back that direction after Jay singled in the first.
"I've been able to maintain my mechanics pretty well and hit the ball hard. [I] just keep trying to go out there and get good pitches to hit, not swing at bad ones," Holliday said. "Basically, all the things you do when you're swinging hit well. I've been able to hold the pace pretty well."
The bullpen had its moment to shine, too. Barret Browning followed his perfect two-inning Major League debut with another 1-2-3 frame. Fernando Salas followed with two scoreless innings of his own.
The bounceback from Salas, who had been scored upon in each of his last four appearances, coincided with a recent adjustment he made after watching video of his 2011 season. He realized he had inadvertently moved too far to the right of the pitching rubber this year, and he corrected that positioning on Tuesday, with desired results.
"The confidence has been there," Salas said through Jaime Garcia, who served as a translator. "[I haven't] really been feeling bad. The mechanics have been good. [My] arm has been good. It's just that difference of, instead of the pitch being in the corner, [I] was leaving it in the middle, and that's where they were getting a lot of hits."
Though Browning and Salas kept the club one swing from turning the game, the loss left the Cardinals with a 42-39 record at the midpoint of the season. St. Louis sits three games behind first-place Cincinnati.
A year ago, en route to a World Series championship run, the Cardinals were one game out of first place, with a 43-38 record.
"I'd like to believe that teams that play a lot of one-run games end up better in the end," Matheny said. "Obviously, you'd rather be on the winning side of those one-run games, but guys are playing with pressure, and that's going to pay off down the road."
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.