ST. PETERSBURG -- An inning away from making a statement, Kyle McClellan instead raised more questions on Saturday night.
McClellan came quickly unglued in an ugly sixth inning as the Cardinals lost to the Rays, 5-1, at Tropicana Field. Back-to-back big hits by Casey Kotchman and Justin Ruggiano turned a one-run Cardinals lead into a four-run deficit, putting the Redbirds in a hole from which they could not dig out.
The Cardinals, who saw a four-game winning streak come to an end, fell back into a first-place tie with the Brewers, who rallied from seven runs down to beat Minnesota.
After a strong start to the season, McClellan has found good results elusive recently. Over his past five starts, he's posted a 7.00 ERA in 27 innings. He's finished the sixth inning just once in that span.
The games bookend a stint on the disabled list for the right-hander. He was roughed up for seven runs by the Giants on May 30, and went on the DL after that game with a left hip injury. In four starts since his return, McClellan has allowed five or more runs three times.
"I've got to work through it," McClellan said. "Early on, everything was going my way, and it [was] indicated in my record. Lately, it's not. And I've got to fight through it and figure out a way, because I'm not giving us a chance. I'm not doing what my job is to do. It's frustrating. Do it five innings, and then one inning, you don't."
On Saturday, McClellan seemed to be cruising through the first five innings, pitching shutout ball with five hits and no walks. However, his fastball was a bit inconsistent even then, and he never really had the best feel for his curveball. McClellan's changeup became his go-to pitch, a reasonable response to a lineup that included four left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter.
However, when McClellan began falling behind in counts in the sixth, it was more difficult to lean on the changeup. He missed with two fastballs in fastball counts, and it was the difference in the game.
Johnny Damon led off the sixth with a single on a changeup, and McClellan walked Ben Zobrist. McClellan got Evan Longoria to fly out, and secured the second out with force-play grounder to second. McClellan's second walk came to B.J. Upton, and he was in trouble.
McClellan fell behind Kotchman, 2-0, and turned to the heater. He left the pitch up and out over the plate, and Kotchman drilled it to right for a three-run double. Three pitches later, on another 2-0 count, McClellan missed up and out with another fastball, and Ruggiano pounded it to left-center for a two-run homer.
"When [McClellan] got behind, I kind of knew what was coming, and I luckily I didn't miss it," Ruggiano said. "I was thinking that if he kept missing with the fastball, he wasn't going to try and drop a curveball in; he's going to try to throw another fastball. That's kind of what I was sitting on, and he threw it to me."
The long ball chased McClellan and sent the Cardinals to their fifth straight loss with McClellan on the mound. Four relievers kept Tampa Bay off the board for the remainder of the game, but it didn't matter because the visitors couldn't get close against Jeff Niemann and the Rays' bullpen.
Lance Berkman's solo homer provided all the scoring for the Cards, who couldn't convert on numerous offensive chances. The Cardinals left 10 men on base and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. They hit into two pivotal double plays, an inning-ender with the bases loaded in the fourth and another with men on first and second to end the seventh.
"We did a great job of getting an inning started, and then didn't play good baseball to do anything with it," manager Tony La Russa said. "We got the leadoff man a bunch of times, never got the guy around much. ... We had some opportunities. Whether we should have done better or they just pitched us really well, that was the name of the game."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.