ST. LOUIS -- It was a somewhat sloppy affair at Busch Stadium on Thursday night. Neither starting pitcher was at his sharpest. Both defenses had their lapses, too.
The only groups benefiting from it all were the two offenses, which combined for nine runs off the starting two alone. That led to a teeter-totter affair until Matt Holliday rested any hopes of a Pirates comeback with a three-run homer late.
With it, the Cardinals snagged an 8-4 win in front of 36,503 at Busch Stadium to open a four-game series between division foes.
It was clear from the start that this was not the Charlie Morton that had sparkled all month. He entered the start having allowed only three runs in 28 1/3 August innings. St. Louis had as many just two innings in on Thursday.
"I felt really good [warming up] in the bullpen," Morton said. "I don't know if that was incorrect feedback I was getting from myself, but it didn't translate into good stuff or a good outing."
With his sinker not really sinking and his breaking pitches not offering enough support, Morton gave up RBI hits to Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman in the first and another to Skip Schumaker in the second. That gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead.
Morton worked his way out of trouble in each of the next two frames, as his team was scoring four unanswered runs at the time. That 4-3 lead was lost in the fifth.
A single and two walks brought Cardinals third baseman David Freese up with the bases full and one out. Morton wanted to go at Freese with what is usually his go-to pitch -- that sinker -- in hopes that a double play would follow.
Freese had been stung by Morton's sinker before -- "Opening homestand, he struck me out on a sinker that I think hit my jersey," Freese recalled -- so the infielder's approach was simple. Keep the ball off the ground, at any cost.
"I was trying to pop out," Freese said. "I was like, 'If I go up here ... and try and pop out, something might fall.' He's got one of the best sinkers in the game."
The location of Morton's pitch wasn't bad, but it was up enough for Freese to slice a two-run single into right field.
"I wish I could have gotten it down and in on his hands more, but maybe if I get it down and in more, he doesn't swing," Morton said. "I don't know."
That marked the end of the day for Morton, too. The 4 1/3-inning outing was his shortest since he lasted two innings in a June 20 start against the Orioles. He allowed nine hits and two walks in this 84-pitch effort. The Cardinals went 4-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
Morton shot down speculation that he might be feeling some fatigue at this point in the season, but there is no hiding the fact that he has already logged 64 1/3 more innings at this level than he did a year ago.
"This is all part of our growth process," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've got to build our starters up. They have to be able to pitch more innings. It's a bigger jump for some than others."
St. Louis starter Edwin Jackson also had his struggles, and they were compounded by Freese's third-inning error. That defensive miscue allowed Pirates catcher Michael McKenry to reach first to begin the frame. He scored the team's first run on a two-out single by Alex Presley, who had been activated off the disabled list earlier in the day.
"I'm just excited to be back and play again," Presley said. "I'm not going to put any more pressure on myself, but I think it will be a good opportunity for me to continue to play well and show what I can do."
Back-to-back walks followed before Garrett Jones pushed the Pirates in front with a two-run single. Jackson ended up falling behind, 3-0, on four straight hitters, but he retired the last one (Josh Harrison) on a flyout to end the inning. In 40 games, Harrison has still walked only once.
McKenry, who had two hits in the game, added an RBI double in the fourth.
Once both bullpens took over, things began to settle down. Pirates right-hander Chris Leroux got out of Morton's mess in the fifth and went on to toss 2 2/3 scoreless innings to keep the deficit at one. He allowed one hit and struck out three.
On the other side, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Motte each made scoreless appearances, with Motte preventing the Pirates from tying the game in the eighth.
Xavier Paul -- who, at the time, represented the tying run -- was left at third after Ronny Cedeno struck out and pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit flied out. Had the Pirates scored there, Hurdle had Jose Veras ready to pitch in the bottom half of the frame.
St. Louis pushed the game out of reach in its half of the eighth. A two-out intentional walk to Pujols brought up Holliday, who, after an 0-for-4 start, connected for a three-run homer off Tony Watson.
"You have to pick your poison," Hurdle said, noting the decision to go after Holliday and not Pujols. "We just missed our location big time right there."
Holliday had entered the game batting .240 off lefties this year.
With the loss, the Pirates are now 5-5 against the Cardinals this year. The club is 10-25 since being a season-best seven games over .500 on July 19.
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.