ST. LOUIS -- Their hopes were declared all but dead a month ago, and believed to be mortally wounded as recently as two days ago. Don't tell the Cardinals, though. They're very, very much alive.
Donning aloha shirts and yelling "happy flight" as music blared through the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium, the Redbirds reveled Sunday afternoon in another sensational win, one that got them closer to a playoff spot than they've been in nearly two months.
Rafael Furcal led off the eighth with a home run off Randy Wells, sending the Cardinals to a 3-2 win over the Cubs. One inning after Yadier Molina's solo homer tied the game, Furcal jumped an 0-1 offering from Chicago's starter and deposited it 386 feet away in right field.
It was sweet redemption for Furcal, whose error proved extremely costly in a gut-wrenching loss to the Mets three days earlier.
"It's tough," Furcal said. "I know the way we are right now, and one mistake is something like you're finished in the pennant race. For me, I couldn't sleep [after the error] because I love to win. I don't like to lose. Even if I'm playing cards or whatever, I want to win."
Furcal and his teammates have been doing a lot of that lately. St. Louis' 21st win in 29 games, combined with an Atlanta loss in Washington, pulled the Cardinals within one game in the National League Wild Card standings -- closer to a playoff spot than they've been since the morning of July 28, when they were a half-game out in the NL Central. The Redbirds rallied from a pair of one-run deficits and didn't lead until Furcal went deep.
Prior to the contest, the Cards held their traditional ceremonies honoring the final home game of the year, including an a cappella national anthem sung by the crowd. Fans gave Albert Pujols a nearly 40-second standing ovation prior to his first at-bat, in recognition of the fact that it could be Pujols' last home game in a Cardinals uniform.
Then, the home team went out and did all it could to ensure that there would be at least one more game in downtown St. Louis this year. As did the Braves, who obliged them by losing to the Nationals. When that score appeared as a final on the Busch Stadium video board, the crowd let out a hearty cheer -- and plenty of people in the home dugout noticed as well.
"I was looking from the get-go," said manager Tony La Russa. "Yeah, that's the fun of it. The fun of it is watching. Only thing is, you can't get distracted watching it. ... But we all were. That's part of the fun."
The Cardinals appear to have the schedule advantage over the season's final days. The Braves go home to face the NL-best Phillies on Monday, while St. Louis travels to Houston to play the team with the league's worst record for the last three scheduled games.
The Braves' magic number to clinch the Wild Card remains at three. Any combination of three Braves wins and Cardinals losses over the final four days will eliminate St. Louis. If the two teams finish in a tie -- seemingly an increasingly likely scenario -- a one-game playoff would be held Thursday at Busch Stadium. The Cards announced Sunday that tickets for both a potential tiebreaker and the Division Series will go on sale Monday morning.
Sunday's game looked a good bit like the Cards' win a day earlier. Starter Edwin Jackson turned in seven excellent innings but didn't figure in the decision, as the St. Louis offense was slow to get going.
Jackson allowed single runs in the fourth and seventh but was mostly in control of the game, and his ability to minimize the damage in the seventh was critical to the win. Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel tag-teamed the eighth before Jason Motte closed it out for his ninth save of the season.
"I was really just trying to come out and throw strikes, make them put the ball in play and be aggressive," Jackson said. "[Let] the defense do exactly what they did today."
Jackson has permitted two earned runs or fewer in nine of his 12 starts with St. Louis.
It's not that his opposite number was any slouch, though. Wells pitched a complete game and held the league's leading offense to six hits. But two solo homers were enough to do him in.
"The first one was a bad hanging cutter that rolled back over the plate," Wells said. "The second one, it felt like he was looking for it and jumped on it. It just [stinks] to end like that. I always like pitching in this ballpark, a big-game atmosphere like it was for them. To lose it the way we did just [stinks]. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it's not a good way to go into the offseason."
For the Cardinals, though, there are still no thoughts of the offseason. They need less help every day as they get closer and closer to having their playoff fate in their own hands. There's plenty of life in the Redbirds yet.
"We're thrilled," La Russa said. "Considering a month ago we may not have any fun this time of year, we're having fun. And we know exactly what we've got to do."
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.