PITTSBURGH - Jared Hughes was a strike away from putting the St. Louis Cardinals in serious trouble.
That's when his problems began.
The normally reliable Pittsburgh Pirates reliever unraveled during the seventh inning of a 3-2 loss Monday night when his typically efficient sinker didn't sink quite enough to do its job.
"I still have confidence in that pitch and I have confidence in our team, and if I continue to pitch that sinker down in the zone it will be hit to people and it'll be a different outcome tomorrow," Hughes said.
Tony Cruz started the rally by turning an 0-2 count into a single. Jon Jay tied the game three batters later with a pinch hit to center, and Matt Holliday gave St. Louis the lead with a chopper past shortstop Jordy Mercer as the Pirates fell further behind St. Louis in the race for a National League playoff spot.
"He's been great all year," Pirates starter Francisco Liriano said of Hughes. "He's not going to be perfect every time. ... It's a tough game."
John Lackey (2-1) worked out of trouble early to last seven innings in his second victory for the Cardinals after arriving in a trade from Boston on July 31. He was 11-7 with the Red Sox.
Trevor Rosenthal gave up a leadoff home run in the ninth to Andrew McCutchen but held on to earn his 39th save.
Pedro Alvarez hit his 18th homer in the second off Lackey, but the Pirates managed little after that to fall further off the pace behind St. Louis and first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central.
Liriano overwhelmed the Cardinals for the first five innings, striking out eight and looking very much like the ace that led Pittsburgh with 16 victories a year ago. He tired in the sixth but worked out of a bases loaded, one-out jam when Oscar Taveras hit into a third-to-home-to-first double play.
Liriano left after giving up an infield single to Kolten Wong leading off the seventh. Hughes (6-4) came on and promptly picked off Wong. Things didn't work out so well for Hughes, however, when he went to the plate.
"It's just a night where he wasn't able to get the ball where he wanted to get the ball," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Hughes threw a pair of strikes to Cruz before the rally began, one that culminated with Holliday's grounder slipping by Mercer's outstretched glove. St. Louis has 209 RBIs this season with two outs, tops in the National League.
The cushion was more than enough for Lackey, who had little trouble after navigating a choppy second inning. Alvarez hit a long home run to center with one out, and infield hits by Starling Marte and Mercer followed. The runners moved up on a sacrifice by Liriano, but Josh Harrison's sharply hit fly to left went right to Holliday.
Lackey settled down following the reprieve, not allowing a runner past first base over his final five innings. He walked one and struck out three to improve to 3-0 against National League teams this season.
Cardinals: C Yadier Molina and right-hander Michael Wacha will head to Double-A Springfield this week to begin rehab assignments.
Molina has been on the disabled list since tearing a ligament in his right thumb July 10 and will go through a full workout with Springfield on Tuesday. If he makes it through without a problem, Molina will likely play on Wednesday and could be back with the Cardinals before rosters expand on Sept. 1.
Wacha hasn't pitched since heading to the DL in mid-June with a stress reaction in his right shoulder. He is scheduled to throw batting practice Wednesday and will make at least one minor league rehab start before being activated.
"It's a great step forward," manager Mike Matheny said about the progress of both players. "Obviously, we'll see how they both feel after they get an opportunity to get into a game. It's definitely good news."
Pirates: RHP Charlie Morton, on the 15-day DL since Aug. 20 with a sports hernia in his right hip, threw a bullpen session and will start for Double-A Altoona on Thursday. Morton will work five innings or 75 pitches.