WASHINGTON -- The Cardinals' road trip -- one that began with a promising series win in Cincinnati -- came to a flat end on Sunday afternoon with a 4-3 loss to the Nationals in front of 31,096 at Nationals Park.
A string of four two-out singles off reliever Lance Lynn provided the Nationals with the winning margin. The Nats' bullpen did just enough to hold it from there, leaving the Cardinals with a missed opportunity to head home with a .500 road trip.
"Very average," Daniel Descalso said of the trip's 4-6 outcome. "Mediocre."
The Cards dropped five of the final seven games on the three-city swing, leaving them further behind the first-place Reds than when St. Louis left town. Perhaps too far back, in fact, to consider a division title still within reach.
Sunday's unraveling took place in the seventh, moments after Descalso's two-run homer took care of a two-run deficit.
With Edward Mujica, the Cardinals' usual choice to pitch the seventh, having been called upon to bail Jake Westbrook out of the sixth, manager Mike Matheny turned a 2-2 game over to Lynn, recently cast out of the rotation because of his struggles. Fernando Salas was unavailable because of recent workload.
With two out and nobody on, Lynn gave up four consecutive hits. The final two -- singles by Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa -- each drove home a run.
The outing was Lynn's third since the rotation-to-bullpen move was made. He's allowed eight hits and five runs (four earned) in 3 1/3 innings. He did not blame the role change for the continued less than desirable results.
"When you're asked to go do something else, you go do your job. You can't think about anything else," Lynn said. "I'm trying to go out there and get people out no matter when or where it is. Pitching is pitching, no matter what the spot or role is."
Not all from this road trip can be categorized as negative, though.
The Cardinals did enough to ensure they'll open a six-game homestand holding the second National League Wild Card. Westbrook showed signs of righting himself, and the offense, though silent against one of baseball's best on Sunday, provided a reminder of its potential a day earlier. It also showcased a never-die attitude for a second straight day.
"I hate walking out of here when we could have been, through a tough trip, 5-5," Matheny said. "That would have been real nice. But the last two days, I like how the guys competed."
Sunday's affair, which began with a 13-minute delay, progressed early as a pitchers' duel. In one of his final starts of the season, Washington's Stephen Strasburg limited the Cardinals to two hits in his six-inning start.
Strasburg faced first-and-third jams twice during his start, though both were the product of errors made behind him. He wiggled out of the first-inning one by striking out Freese, who had three hits and three RBIs on Saturday. In the fourth, the Cardinals' scoring chance ended when Allen Craig was thrown out trying to score on Bryan Anderson's fly ball to shallow right.
St. Louis struck out nine times against Strasburg, who threw 97 pitches. The Cardinals haven't tallied an earned run off four of the last five starters they have faced.
"He throws hard, mixes pitches well," Descalso said of Strasburg. "He's tough to get to when he's throwing his stuff well."
The Cardinals capitalized upon his exit, though. Starting at second base primarily for defensive purposes, Descalso followed Pete Kozma's two-out single with a home run off Sean Burnett in the seventh. It was Descalso's first home run since June 6 and his first in the Majors off a left-handed pitcher
That tied the game at 2 and took Westbrook off the hook.
The Cards attempted to answer back again in the eighth, but fell a run short of climbing out of the deficit. Consecutive doubles by David Freese and Tony Cruz plated one run in the eighth.
It left St. Louis in position to fall to 15-22 in one-run games this year. That wasn't the only trend to continue.
Also of concern is that the Cards' own starters have now been chased from their respective starts before the sixth in 10 of the team's last 11 games. The longest performance by a starter on this trip came on Aug. 25, when Jaime Garcia allowed four runs in six innings.
"It's not an issue as much as we got spoiled there with our starters going deep," Matheny said. "That's something I anticipate we're going to see again."
Westbrook has not hit that inning mark in any of his last three starts. After going 5-2 with a 2.96 ERA in his first seven starts following the All-Star break, Westbrook has allowed 14 runs and 27 hits in his last 15 1/3 innings.
But Sunday's performance was improved.
Westbrook retired five of the first six batters he faced and maneuvered around a second-inning, bases-loaded jam by striking out Strasburg. He eluded trouble again in the third, but was then ambushed by a Kurt Suzuki solo homer an inning later.
"He's only hitting eighth because they have such a great lineup," Westbrook said of Suzuki. "He's still a great hitter."
Suzuki drove in a second run off Westbrook in the sixth to stake Washington to a 2-0 lead. Suzuki's RBI single was the third straight single given up by Westbrook, whose day ended there.
"It's not all the way back," Westbrook said of his fastball command. "But it's a step in the right direction and something I can build off of."
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.