CINCINNATI -- The narrative on Sunday night was frustratingly familiar for a Cardinals team that welcomed a departure from Cincinnati but also reflected on the three-day stay by mulling opportunities lost.
Three solid performances from St. Louis' starters were nullified by bullpen mistakes and offensive deficiencies in this first series out of the All-Star break. The latter loomed especially large in the series finale, which the Reds took, 4-2, thanks to a two-out, eighth-inning, RBI single by Scott Rolen.
A crowd of 39,280 at Great American Ball Park watched Cincinnati take lone possession of first place in the National League Central with the win. St. Louis, which hadn't been swept since mid-May, sits 4 1/2 games behind.
"We have to start doing better," said Matt Holliday, who extended his hitting streak to 14 games. "We have to start winning close games. We have to start getting those runs in. We've made it really hard on our pitchers the last few games."
The Cardinals finished the series 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position. They were 0-for-7 on Sunday.
"It's one of those things where it seems like sometimes we're not making the big pitch, we're not getting the big hit," starter Jake Westbrook said. "Those have come back to bite us a little bit. We just have to find a better way to come through in those situations. There's times when we have our moments, but it's just doing it on a consistent basis."
Westbrook's outing would have been cast in a different light had the offense better assisted him when opportunities arose. As it was, the right-hander was hurt in two of his 7 1/3 innings on the mound.
In the second, a string of three two-out singles led to a pair of Cincinnati runs. Trouble then brewed when he was sent out to protect a 2-2 tie in the eighth.
With one out, Westbrook walked Joey Votto and plunked Brandon Phillips. That ended his night. Lefty Marc Rzepczynski retired Jay Bruce, and, needing one more out, manager Mike Matheny called on Mitchell Boggs, who has been among the team's most reliable relief options this season. Boggs had not allowed an inherited runner to score since May 25.
After issuing an intentional walk to load the bases, the right-hander served up a line-drive single to Rolen that a leaping Skip Schumaker couldn't reach. Two runs scored.
"That was a situation I wanted to come into," Boggs said. "I was trying to get it down and in on him and it was up a little more than I would have liked."
That was sufficient enough cushion for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who sealed the sweep by striking out the side for his 13th save.
"Right there you get an opportunity that just presents itself," said Rolen, who hadn't had an RBI since June 23. "You don't think about it and you try not to make it a bigger at-bat than it is."
Though the outcome again hinged on the bullpen's inability to make a critical pitch in a critical spot, the offense shouldered at least as much fault.
A half-inning before Rolen's heroics, the Cardinals were poised to put pressure on Cincinnati. Leadoff singles by Holliday and Carlos Beltran put Reds starter Homer Bailey on the hook. Bailey answered in a big way.
Lance Berkman, who finished 0-for-3 in his first start since May 19, struck out. Yadier Molina, who had driven in the team's first two runs, flied out. David Freese ended the frame with a groundout back to Bailey.
"We didn't hit when we needed to," said Molina, whose sixth-inning solo homer had tied the game at 2. "The whole series went like that. We have to keep battling and try to figure out what it is and try to fix it."
And then there were the earlier mistakes.
The Cardinals lost a key baserunner when Molina, after doubling home Berkman in the second inning, was thrown out trying to advance to third when a pickoff throw skirted away.
In the fifth, Westbrook's inability to lay down a sacrifice bunt proved costly. The lead runner was thrown out at second, an outcome made even more frustrating when Rafael Furcal followed with a single.
"When you're having trouble getting your offense started, you can't have little things happen," Matheny said. "They add up, especially in a series like this where every little play counts."
In the series, Cardinals starters allowed only seven runs in the combined 19 2/3 innings they were on the mound. Another three inherited runners they left scored, though that would typically seem hardly too much for a Cardinals offense that still leads the NL in runs scored and team batting average to overcome in a hitter-friendly ballpark.
Yet, the Reds continually capitalized late. They scored eight of their 12 runs from the seventh inning on. The Cardinals scored only twice after the sixth. Two of their losses came on last at-bat hits by players who used to play for St. Louis.
"You just have to keep fighting," Boggs said. "If our starters keep going out there and pitch like they've been pitching, we're going to win a lot of baseball games. You just keep fighting. You can't worry about what's happened. You just have to keep pushing."
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.