CINCINNATI -- The Cardinals' troubles winning close games has moved past peripheral concern and deep into the category of a trend.
The club dropped five of the first six one-run games it played this season, and that has turned out to be a harbinger of a season pattern. Put Saturday's 3-2 walk-off loss in Cincinnati as the latest such stinger, as a lack of timely hitting exposed the bullpen long enough for it to make a mistake.
Ryan Ludwick's 10th-inning home run sealed the victory in front of 37,583 at Great American Ball Park and boosted the Reds' lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central to 3 1/2 games.
"It's real tough," starter Kyle Lohse said. "I feel like we're just one break away a lot of times, and we haven't gotten those breaks. We're doing everything we can. We're just having a hard time with those close ones."
The Cardinals' record in one-run games now sits at 10-15. Include two-run games and the winning percentage is even worse. Last year, the club went 26-23 in one-run affairs.
"It's something that is going to have to change if we want to win the division," said first baseman Lance Berkman. "I would be more concerned if I was concerned about the character of guys on this team. If we had a group of untested, unproven guys who had never done it before then you might think it's a problem.
"It's not a question of, 'Can we do it?' It's just doing it."
The game-ender came off Victor Marte, who relieved Marc Rzepczynski with one out in the 10th. Up to that point, the 'pen had combined to pitch 3 1/3 scoreless innings. Marte jumped in front of Ludwick, 0-2, but the former Cardinal outfielder worked the count full.
On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Marte turned to his slider, delivering one that was actually placed low and off the plate.
"It was a good pitch," catcher Yadier Molina said.
But Ludwick reached for it and lined it just over the left-field wall for the fifth walk-off homer of his career.
"That thing got over by about a half-inch," Ludwick said. "So, I'll take it."
The game had been tied at 2 since the top of the seventh, which began with Molina's 14th home run. Back-to-back hits by David Freese and Skip Schumaker followed, leaving the Cardinals with several tries to collect that big hit that has been so elusive.
The situation also presented manager Mike Matheny with the perfect opportunity to utilize his new pinch-hitter.
Berkman, activated off the disabled list earlier in the day, stepped up with his .330 career average at Great American Ball Park, prompting Reds manager Dusty Baker to pull his starter, Mike Leake. In came reliever Sean Marshall.
Marshall collected the strikeout.
"It's tough to pinch-hit when you haven't seen a live pitcher in two months," Berkman said. "The good news is I actually felt pretty good. I know I struck out, and I know the result wasn't what everybody wanted to see, but I judged it based on how I felt in the batter's box."
The scoring opportunity wasn't entirely squandered, as Rafael Furcal laid down a safety squeeze bunt that was good enough for him to reach and Freese to score.
But a chance to push the go-ahead run across passed the Cardinals by. Schumaker was thrown out trying to score on a ground ball. Matt Holliday then grounded out with two aboard to end the inning.
In the eighth, the Cardinals left the bases loaded after drawing three walks from reliever Logan Ondrusek. Pinch-hitter Tyler Greene -- whom Matheny chose over Matt Carpenter when lefty Bill Bray replaced Ondrusek -- popped out in foul territory to end that run-scoring opportunity.
"We had the opportunities and had some guys who come through in those situations often," Matheny said. "We just couldn't get that big hit."
Also of consequence was that the fruitless inning extended long enough to force Matheny to pinch-hit for reliever Mitchell Boggs, who had come in to record the final out of the seventh. That affected how Matheny was able to manage his bullpen the rest of the game.
St. Louis finished the game 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. That lone hit was Furcal's bunt. The club ended up stranding 11.
"We didn't take advantage when we got them on the line," Molina said. "We have to do better."
The Cardinals' seventh-inning activity did take Lohse off the hook for the loss. Lohse exited trailing, 2-0, after allowing a run in each of his last two frames -- the fifth and sixth.
He was hardly at his sharpest, but succeeded in doing damage control. Though he allowed eight hits, Lohse also stranded nine, including six in scoring position.
Two-out hits by Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce pushed across Cincinnati's first run. It was the sixth-inning run that irritated Lohse more. After allowing a pair of singles, Lohse fielded a bunt from Leake. He had a chance to get the lead runner at third base, but Lohse couldn't get a grip when he fielded the ball.
"If I throw that ball, I throw it into the stands and it's a lot worse," said Lohse, who pitched in the rain part of the afternoon. "I just turned around to throw to Freese and I grabbed nothing but a slick ball. I wasn't going to take that chance."
He settled for the out at first. That loomed large when Zack Cozart followed with a deep fly ball that scored Scott Rolen from third.
With the loss, the Cardinals are now assured of dropping their first series against the Reds this year. On Sunday, they will look to avoid their first sweep since May 18-20 against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
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.