ST. LOUIS -- An emergency summons from Triple-A after the Cardinals used starter Jake Westbrook a day earlier than expected, Carlos Martinez watched his first Major League start sour on his 97th pitch of the night.
With an authoritative blast over the wall in left-center, A.J. Ellis turned a tie game into a three-run advantage for the Dodgers, who held that lead for an eventual 5-1 win on Thursday. Martinez lasted only one pitch longer, as cramping forced him from the game before he could close the fifth inning.
Martinez later suggested that the cramping may have been a factor in allowing the home run, though his night was sealed when he tried to pitch through the discomfort.
"I tried to battle, but that's how it ended up," Martinez said, with Jon Jay serving as translator. "I just tried to go out and give it my all."
A crowd of 42,567 was at Busch Stadium as the Cardinals dropped their third game of the four-game set. The loss ended the team's 15-game stretch against the other four teams currently in playoff position. The Cardinals won only four of them. As a result, they now sit four games behind the first-place Pirates.
"The majority of the teams we've been playing lately have been playing pretty good baseball," manager Mike Matheny said. "But I think we look in the mirror first and we realize we haven't been playing to the highest caliber baseball that we could play. That's what we're more concerned about than anything. We're trying, slowly but surely, to right the ship and get us back to playing the kind of game that we can play. Then it doesn't matter who we play against."
Martinez had an atypical 24 hours leading up to his debut as a big league starter. He was with the Triple-A club, traveling from Memphis through Dallas to Reno on Wednesday, when he learned that the Cardinals needed him in St. Louis. He then took an early-morning flight to Missouri on Thursday.
Martinez lit up the radar gun -- reaching 100 mph twice, 99 mph 13 times and 98 mph on another 15 occasions -- but he was also inefficient. By the end of the third, his pitch count sat at 68. Seven baserunners had reached by that point, though he had allowed only one to score. A five-pitch fourth bought him the chance to go back out for another frame.
"He was not missing them by a ton, I can tell you that," catcher Rob Johnson said. "There were some close pitches that I thought could go either way, and some of the balls were an inch off the plate. It wasn't like hitters were so comfortable because they could look right down the middle."
Martinez issued a one-out walk in the fifth, and a single by Yasiel Puig moved Adrian Gonzalez to second. Martinez induced a fielder's choice for the second out, and, though he had Seth Maness warm in the 'pen, Matheny stuck with Martinez.
"We just wanted to try and get him through that if he could," Matheny said.
Martinez quickly fell behind, 3-1, and Ellis crushed a 93-mph fastball for his sixth homer of the year.
"That is a great arm. I don't know if we've seen a fastball like that this year," Ellis said. "We really battled, and tonight fouled a lot of balls off that were borderline pitches, kind of drove his pitch count up, tried to make him more one-dimensional than before. He's got a bright future, just like all their arms over there. It seems like nonstop, the Cardinals keep running out guys who are throwing 95-plus [who] are just another bright arm in their future."
After Martinez threw a first-pitch strike to the next batter, Johnson saw him flexing his right hand. He headed toward the mound, as did Matheny and a trainer. Shortly after, Martinez walked off the mound.
Martinez said later that the cramping surfaced during Gonzalez's at-bat and that his drop in fastball velocity during that inning seemed an indication that something was off.
Though he is clearly a part of the organization's future, Martinez is probably headed back to Triple-A to continue his season. With Shelby Miller likely avoiding the disabled list and another pitching prospect (Michael Wacha) on the way this weekend, the Cardinals do not seem to have a need to keep Martinez with the big league club.
Weeks after asking Matheny during a casual pregame conversation what he needed to do to prove he was ready to make a Major League start, Martinez at least heads out having made his first.
"First of all, I thank God for this opportunity," Martinez said. "I feel bad that I didn't finish what I started."
The Cardinals, stymied by lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu , never recovered from Ellis' swing, and have fallen to 12-17 this season in games opposed by a lefty starter.
St. Louis scratched for five hits off Ryu and needed a fortuitous bounce to score their only run. That came in the fourth, when David Freese followed Matt Holliday 's single with one of his own. On his throw back to the infield, Dodgers center fielder Andre Ethier overshot his cutoff man, and the ball hit the edge of the second base bag. It caromed far enough away for Holliday to score and tie the game.
The Cardinals collected only two other hits the rest of the night. The team totaled 12 runs in the four-game series, fewer than it allowed in relief on Wednesday.
"You have to give credit to what [the Dodgers are] doing," said Carlos Beltran. "Everything they're doing is working. They're pitching well. They're coming through offensively. They're making plays. Right now they're hot."
As for his own club?
"We haven't been able to be consistent like we were early in the year," he added. "That's something that we're looking for."
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.