ST. LOUIS -- What no one else in the National League can seem to do, the Cardinals have made a habit of doing.
A Braves team that has been bulletproof in the late innings keeps springing leaks against the Cardinals. For the third time in four meetings between the clubs this year, St. Louis overcame a late deficit to win. On Friday, it was a 4-3 triumph as Nick Punto hit a game-ending sacrifice fly off of Scott Linebrink in the 10th inning.
Two singles, a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk set the stage for Punto, who had entered the game an inning earlier as a pinch-hitter. Punto worked a 3-2 count before hitting a drive to center field that ended the game.
"He was throwing me some good hard fastballs in, like right on my hands, and I was just getting enough wood on it to foul it off," Punto said. "And then he just got a sinker out over the middle and I put it in play."
The win gave a boost to the Cards' faint but still surviving playoff hopes. They pulled 6 1/2 games behind the Braves in the National League Wild Card race with 18 games remaining. They're also 7 1/2 games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. The Cards are done with their season series against the Brewers, but have two more meetings with Atlanta this weekend.
In their sixth try since the All-Star break, the Cardinals also got to 10 games over .500. The last time they were 10 over was the morning of June 12. Coincidentally, that's almost exactly the same date that Braves closer Craig Kimbrel gave up a run. Kimbrel was last scored upon on June 11, a span of 38 appearances and 37 2/3 innings.
So when St. Louis had mustered nothing against rookie starter Randall Delgado and three relievers for the first eight innings, it looked like it was game over. But as was the case in each of their two previous wins against Atlanta, the Cards were able to get to Kimbrel in the ninth.
On Friday it was a two-out, two-run single from Albert Pujols that tied the game and forced extras. Ryan Theriot got caught between third and home on the play, ending the inning, but the Cards beat Linebrink an inning later.
In Kimbrel's three appearances against the Cardinals in 2011, he has two blown saves and a loss. Against the rest of the Major Leagues, the hard-throwing youngster has four blown saves and one loss.
"I hung a pitch near the end and [Pujols] kept it inside the lines," Kimbrel said. "It wasn't the pitch I wanted to throw or where I wanted to throw it."
Pujols had three hits on the night, his fifth multihit game in eight September starts. He's hitting .298 and has 87 RBIs.
Yet two innings earlier, Pujols himself had come up empty against another Braves reliever. He hit into a double play against lefty Johnny Venters after a leadoff single by Allen Craig in the eighth.
But when it came time to face Kimbrel, Pujols got it done.
"I've only got a few at-bats against the guy," Pujols said. "Obviously he has 43 saves for a reason. He has pretty good stuff. Any of those guys in the bullpen. Venters, I don't think I've seen any left-hander moving the ball 97, 98 miles an hour like he does. And Kimbrel obviously has good command of his fastball, good offspeed. He walked a couple guys today and that's what hurt him, but they're going to be taken care of for the next 10 or 15 years with those two guys."
Starter Edwin Jackson turned in yet another strong game. Jackson allowed two runs on seven hits over six innings, striking out five and walking two. He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in six of his past seven starts.
Delgado, making his fourth Major League start, got into trouble but worked out of it with a wide array of pitches. Three Braves allowed two hits each but kept the Cards off the board before the rally against Kimbrel.
"This game right here is a big game," Jackson said. "To start the series off with a win is huge for us. Especially going into tomorrow doing it against one of the best in the game right now [in] Kimbrel. To be able to come out and score runs against him, it's a great sign for us."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.