PITTSBURGH -- Lance Lynn has done much to show proof of his top-of-the-rotation potential. He's built himself to be a workhorse, eclipsing 200 innings last season, his second full season in the big leagues. And his propensity to be on the mound when the team wins -- though discounted by some as more a reflection of run support -- can't be entirely ignored.
But Lynn's next step forward likely won't come until the big innings posted against him reduce. Manager Mike Matheny on Saturday described Lynn as having "the kind of stuff that should have taken him through a complete game without any runs," yet Lynn couldn't hold a three-run lead.
With Lynn hurt by the big inning and the offense handcuffed by the absence of the big hit, St. Louis dropped back under .500 as Pittsburgh secured an early series victory with a 4-3 win.
"We've talked about it many times with Lance trying to harness where he is," Matheny said. "Next thing you know, that inning just escalated because of a couple things that don't normally happen."
An offense that has made Lynn one of the most well-supported pitchers in recent years couldn't bail him out, either. After falling behind by one run, St. Louis stranded eight runners.
"I don't really want to jump to any conclusions about anything right now. We're 30-something games into the season," said Allen Craig, who struck out to end the game with both the potential tying and go-ahead runs on base. "We're always working on getting better, and we have a lot of good hitters in the lineup that work hard and are smart. Sometimes it just takes a little time. We'll get better."
The Cardinals, playing in front of 34,914 at PNC Park, watched as nine Pirates hitters stepped to the plate in Lynn's 33-pitch fourth, one that featured nary an extra-base hit but was again indicative of the recurring troubles he has in getting the bleeding to stop.
The first three batters reached via a pair of singles sandwiched around Tony Sanchez being hit by a pitch on the elbow. Consecutive groundouts, including one by Pirates starter Edinson Volquez, plated two runs. A liner that ricocheted off Lynn's foot -- "I should have caught it," he later said -- allowed the tying run to score.
Two more singles put Pittsburgh in front.
"That's a tough inning," Lynn said. "You give up four runs with only one ball leaving the infield in the air. I thought I made some pitches to get out of the inning, and it just didn't work out. That happens. There are going to be some games where I throw the ball right down the middle three straight times and I get three straight outs. Tonight it just didn't happen when I made my pitch.
"That's the team they are -- they'll battle you. When they feel like they have their inning or their chance, they do a good job at making everything happen."
This marked the fourth time in Lynn's eight starts this season that he has allowed at least three runs in an inning. The sequence was especially reminiscent of his April 29 outing, in which he also lost a three-run lead by allowing a four-run fourth. The Cardinals lost that game by one run, too.
This was also the third consecutive start in which the starter opposing Lynn has driven in a run against him.
The big-inning problems of this season are hardly new, as the issue has plagued the right-hander since his placement in the rotation to begin 2012. He's made 70 starts during that span and has allowed three or more runs in an inning 28 times.
Opponents have scored 96 runs during those prolonged innings, accounting for more than half the runs Lynn has allowed as a starter. In several of those complicated frames, the catalyst has been an error or walk.
On Saturday, Matheny saw the leadoff check-swing single as the point from which Lynn allowed things to unravel.
"When he has that kind of movement and he's commanding the zone, you get a guy on base and you gather your wits, and that's part of the growth -- to understand that with that kind of movement, you should be able to get a ground-ball double play and get us out of this," Matheny said. "That's not always the case that the one flair [hit] does that, but it does appear that way when the next guy does get one."
Lynn pitched three scoreless innings before the fourth and another two after it, but the Cardinals' offense couldn't undo the damage done despite several chances.
St. Louis loaded the bases with two out in the fifth, which ended with Matt Adams grounding out. Matt Holliday and Craig couldn't push a pair of runners up in the seventh. Adams led off the eighth with a double and, after Mark Ellis could not lay down a successful sacrifice, Adams never budged.
Pittsburgh's bullpen finished its string of 4 2/3 scoreless innings by stranding two more in the ninth.
"Obviously, it would be nice to get the big hit," Craig said. "I think we're taking good at-bats, we're just not getting it to go for us at the right time sometimes."
The Cardinals' only sustained offensive momentum came as they built that three-run lead in the second. Following a single by Craig and a walk to Adams, Ellis drove a run home with a single to center. Volquez loaded the bases back up by hitting Peter Bourjos, positioning the Cardinals to score another run on a Tony Cruz double play.
Volquez's wild pitch to Lynn allowed the third run to score.
The Cardinals, with the loss, dropped to 3-5 on this road trip with one game remaining. The team is now 6-8 in one-run games.
"To go seven zeros to finish it off," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "everybody threw in something, everybody did their job, had a hand on the baton."
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.