CHICAGO -- A game that was determined late actually turned early, as the Cardinals' inability to capitalize on Jeff Samardzija's first-inning wildness loomed as largely as the game-winning run the Cardinals served up in the seventh. As a result, St. Louis had its four-game winning streak snapped by the Cubs' 3-2 victory on Saturday.
A day after blasting five home runs, the Cardinals set themselves up to pounce on Samardzija before many of the 41,276 at Wrigley Field had settled into their seats.
The Cubs' starter opened his outing with seven straight balls. Sixteen pitches into the inning, Samardzija had walked the bases full. He took a visit from pitching coach Chris Bosio as Carlos Beltran walked to the plate.
But rather than forcing Samardzija into proving he could command the strike zone, Beltran swung at the first pitch. It resulted in a groundout, scoring one run.
"I'm just looking for a pitch to hit," said Beltran, who finished the day 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. "I got a pitch and just hit it off the end of the bat."
Five pitches later, Samardzija was out of the inning with no further damage done. Four of those pitches were swung at, which begged an obvious question. Had the Cardinals done Samardzija a favor by staying aggressive after he showed no ability to throw strikes early?
The aggressive approach, manager Mike Matheny insisted, was not flawed.
"He's got good stuff," Matheny said. "You can't sit around. Once he finds the zone, he's going to be tough to hit. They need to be consistent, and when you get RBI guys in RBI situations, you need to stick with the same approach. Sometimes the other guy gets the best of you."
The missed opportunity to sink the Cubs early became even more magnified when Chicago scored twice in the bottom half of the inning. Hits by David DeJesus and Starlin Castro put Cardinals starter Joe Kelly in immediate trouble in his Wrigley Field debut.
With one out, Alfonso Soriano drove both baserunners home with his first triple of the year.
"I feel like I was making good pitches except for the one to Soriano," Kelly said. "I just left one up. He didn't hit it great, but pulled it fair."
The Cardinals, with the help of two more walks, did tie up the game in the sixth, though they again felt cheated of more -- not by their own doing this time. With the bases full and one out, Daniel Descalso lifted a fly ball to right that, off the bat, looked and sounded as if it was headed for the seats.
Instead it died, dropping into the glove of Bryan LaHair for a sacrifice fly.
"That's a homer yesterday," Matheny said. "A grand slam."
"Yeah, I thought I hit it pretty good," Descalso said. "It came off the bat well. I thought it had a chance."
The Cardinals wouldn't score again. The club finished hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position during Samardzija's six-inning start in which he walked six.
Jon Jay's unsuccessful attempt to move Skip Schumaker to second with a sacrifice bunt hurt, too, after Schumaker had reached on a leadoff single in the seventh. The Cardinals then ended the game by coming up empty twice with a runner on second against closer Carlos Marmol.
"In games like this," Matheny said, "it's the little things that end up mattering both ways."
Kelly did settle in after the first inning and retired 14 straight following Soriano's hit. His pitch count stayed low, which earned him a trip back to the mound to start the seventh. Kelly had not pitched past the sixth in any of his other eight Major League starts.
"Now it's under my belt that I can get past it," Kelly said. "I was just a few pitches away from going even farther."
He didn't make it through the inning, as a leadoff walk was compounded by a single that moved the baserunner to third. After retiring Jeff Baker on a lineout, Kelly handed the jam over to lefty Brian Fuentes.
Fuentes recorded a key strikeout to garner the inning's second out. Pinch-hitter Reed Johnson then took a game-changing gamble.
Seeing that Matt Carpenter was playing back at third, Johnson moved up in the batter's box -- something that tipped Matheny off that a bunt might be coming.
It did. And it was, as several described it afterward, perfectly placed.
As Johnson placed the bunt down the third-base line, Tony Campana scampered home. Johnson reached without a throw.
"It's probably not what you would expect, and it was a risky situation for them," said Fuentes, who fielded the ball. "He had a lot of faith in himself and he laid down a good one."
Added Samardzija: "It's things like that you need to do to win those ballgames, especially against a great team like the Cardinals."
That positioned Kelly as a hard-luck loser yet again. He is 0-4 this month despite making five quality starts. With an ERA of 2.96 in nine starts, Kelly has also positioned himself to remain a part of the club's rotation moving forward.
The big unknown, though, is whether the Cardinals will push him out either when Jaime Garcia returns, or if the organization acquires a starting pitcher before Tuesday's non-waiver Trade Deadline. Insistent that he doesn't worry about such scenarios, Kelly does have the backing of his manager should the Cardinals prefer to stay put.
"There's a lot of different things going on and that could potentially go on, but we progress with what we have and are content with what we've got," Matheny said. "That's all you can ask. He's giving us a chance to win."
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.