PITTSBURGH -- In a series in which the Cardinals' offense was mostly inept with runners in scoring position, David Freese collected a key hit in such a spot to provide Kyle Lohse with the cushion he needed to roll to his third victory.
Lohse pitched with the same ease that he had in his first three outings, as he led the Cardinals to a 5-1 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday. The victory came in front of 30,437 at PNC Park and secured another series win for St. Louis, which has yet to drop one this season.
While Lohse handcuffed a sputtering Pittsburgh offense, it took the Cardinals finally breaking through in a run-producing spot to get a comfortable advantage.
"The situational hitting, or lack thereof, almost got us again," manager Mike Matheny said. "We were really kind of getting a little demoralized by not coming through in those [situations]."
That's because by the time Freese singled home two in the third, the Cardinals were just 1-for-25 with runners in scoring position in the series. That included an 0-for-7 showing on Saturday and another 0-for-7 mark to begin Sunday's game.
For the second straight day, the club loaded the bases with no outs in the first. Though neither Carlos Beltran nor Freese could follow with a hit, one run did score when Beltran grounded into a double play.
A leadoff double in the second was then wasted. And Pittsburgh's Erik Bedard nearly escaped third-inning trouble, too. He retired two straight after allowing another leadoff double and a walk before Freese drove a fastball into right field.
"You definitely understand what's been happening and what's been going on," said Freese. "You try and have a routine. You try and have a mental approach and try to make things seem like they're going good."
That 3-0 lead was placed in trusty hands, and Lohse, who has not pitched behind all year, extended his scoreless-innings streak to 14 before the Pirates broke through for an eighth-inning score. The recipe for success was as it's been for Lohse all year. He commanded his sinker and changeup well against lefties. He also mixed in a steady dose of sliders and curveballs to keep the Pirates off balance.
"He was at the bottom of the zone all day long," Pirates catcher Michael McKenry said. "It was a steady mix. You didn't know what was coming."
In all, Lohse scattered six hits and kept Pittsburgh 1-for-5 in chances with runners in scoring position. Through the first six innings, he threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of 22 batters. Combine these results with those of his previous three outings and Lohse has now allowed only three earned runs, 16 hits and two walks in 27 1/3 innings.
Had the bullpen not blown a lead in Lohse's last start, he'd already be at the four-win mark. As it is, the Cardinals became the first team to flaunt a starting staff with two three-game winners. Lance Lynn reached the mark in the first game on this series. Lohse begins the year 3-0 for the fourth time in his career.
"You have that healthy competition going on with the starters," said Matheny, whose rotation is now 10-4. "It is that kind of next-man-up philosophy."
Lohse had a chance to match or surpass the 7 1/3-inning showing he had on Opening Day, but he got into some trouble to start the eighth.
Sending Lohse out to pitch the eighth was a decision Matheny had regretted not making in Lohse's last outing. He pulled Lohse after a 90-pitch, seven-inning start last Monday only to watch Lohse lose the chance at a win. This time, Matheny gave Lohse, who had thrown 91 pitches through seven innings, the opportunity to hold the lead.
Lohse couldn't get it done, losing the shutout by allowing consecutive hits to begin the eighth.
"I made a great pitch right before I gave up the [leadoff] double [to McKenry]," Lohse said. "I tried to get him to chase just off, and then I left a ball up. When I was unable to [get the out], I was a little upset with myself."
With the Pirates pulling to within two, Matheny turned to Mitchell Boggs. He ended the inning in three pitches. Kyle McClellan sealed the win with a scoreless ninth after the Cardinals had tacked on two more runs to pad their lead.
Matching the number of hits they had with runners in scoring position through the first 26 innings of the series, the Cardinals pushed across runs with singles from Rafael Furcal and Matt Holliday in the ninth. Skip Schumaker, in his first at-bat of the season, preceded those singles with one of his own. Schumaker had been on the disabled list until Friday and was then again sidelined after colliding with the outfield wall.
"I figured I'd get an at-bat some point in the series, and luckily there was a time for it," Schumaker said. "It was a good start, and I'm glad I could help out somehow."
Though the club finished the series with only four hits -- all singles -- with runners in scoring position and only one home run, it ended up outscoring the Pirates, 9-4.
"I know these guys take a lot of pride, and we constantly work on situational hitting," Matheny said. "Executing is a different issue. But I know that's something that we can't let those opportunities slip by, because we'll let wins slip by."
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.