ST. LOUIS -- Everything seemed to line up perfectly for the Cardinals on Friday night, in not just one city but two. At Busch Stadium, the Cards sent ace Chris Carpenter to the mound against Ryan Dempster and the fourth-place Cubs. Some 700 miles east, phenom Stephen Strasburg took the hill for Washington against the reeling Braves.
Nothing worked according to plan, though, and three hours later, the Cards' playoff hopes had been severely dented in two time zones. Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano's three-run homer off Kyle McClellan in the eighth inning broke a tie and sent St. Louis to a 5-1 defeat. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Braves beat Strasburg and the Nationals, 7-4, extending their lead in the National League Wild Card race.
The Cards' chances dropped drastically with the pair of results. They now trail Atlanta by three games with five to play. Following their respective weekend series, the Cardinals visit Houston, while the Braves host the Phillies for three games to end the season.
Additionally, Milwaukee beat the Marlins at home, clinching the National League Central championship. The Cardinals fell six games behind the first-place Brewers with five remaining. Fans and players remained at Miller Park after the Brewers' win to watch the final outs at Busch.
"[We're] running out of time," manager Tony La Russa said. "It definitely is harmful. But we felt like we had to win this series to have a shot. So it means we've got to win tomorrow and the next day."
St. Louis lost back-to-back games for the first time since Sept. 4-5. The Cardinals are 19-8 over their past 27 games.
Chris Carpenter tossed seven strong and efficient innings for the Redbirds but was lifted for a pinch-hitter to open their half of the seventh. It didn't work out well. The Cards didn't score, and in the next half-inning, they fell behind for good.
Carpenter permitted a run on five hits with five strikeouts and two walks, and needed a mere 93 pitches to get that far. Carlos Pena's sixth-inning RBI double brought home the only run against him.
However, he gave way to pinch-hitter Adron Chambers, who popped up. The Cardinals did manage two singles later in the inning, but a caught stealing and a popup short-circuited a potential rally.
"I felt like I was throwing the ball pretty well," Carpenter said. "I was keeping the ball down, getting ahead for the most part. Just a bad pitch to Pena I needed to execute."
Chicago then struck immediately against McClellan. The right-hander permitted a leadoff triple to Darwin Barney on a fastball up and over the plate. After he got Bryan LaHair to pop up, the Cards chose to walk Pena intentionally, setting up the double play and avoiding a dangerous left-handed hitter.
Unfortunately, that brought up Soriano, who had hurt McClellan before. He did it again, drilling a hanging 1-1 cutter over the fence in left for a go-ahead blast. In eight at-bats against McClellan, Soriano has four hits, three of them for extra bases and two of them home runs.
"It just wasn't a good pitch," McClellan said. "And he's a good hitter. I've had my struggles with him in the past, and they continued."
McClellan has allowed 41 homers in his Major League career, 16 of them (39 percent) with the score tied. That's despite the fact that only about 20 percent of the plate appearances against him have come in tie games.
The Cards led early when Carpenter executed a squeeze bunt, but it was the only time they converted on an offensive opportunity -- and they had plenty. St. Louis amassed eight hits and seven walks against Cubs pitching but converted those chances into only one run. Cardinals batters went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, hit into three double plays and lost another runner on a caught-stealing.
Some of that must be credited to Dempster, who dodged trouble effectively.
"I knew I was in for a battle, especially against [Carpenter] and against that team," Dempster said. "Every game is going to be like that for the whole series. We're just trying to give our best effort and finish as strong as we can finish."
The double plays were Nos. 163, 164 and 165 of the year for the Cardinals. That pulls them within one of the NL record, held by the 1958 Cardinals.
The Cardinals sold 40,355 tickets for the Friday night contest, pushing them past 3 million in paid attendance for the season. It's the eighth straight season and 15th time overall that St. Louis has drawn 3 million fans.
Two home games remain, as the Cards will try to take the fight to the Braves for as long as they can.
"We started this run weeks ago," Carpenter said. "Everybody counted us out a long time ago, and we battled back to give ourselves a chance. I think [the goal] was to try to play hard and play well the rest of the year, no matter what happens. Continue to battle all year and to be proud of what our season was all about, and we continue to do that."
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.