ST. LOUIS -- For a short time on Monday night, the Cardinals were in control of their playoff fate. Because they didn't seize that opportunity, they're once again relying on someone else for help.With everything in front of them, they just couldn't close the deal. St. Louis had the opportunity to tie the Braves for the lead in the National League Wild Card race, but instead suffered an agonizing 5-4 defeat in 10 innings to the Astros. The loss ate further into St. Louis' already extremely slim margin for error and left the Cards very near the end of their rope -- but still not out. Angel Sanchez's bunt single brought home the winning run with no outs in the 10th against Octavio Dotel, who had breezed through the ninth. Brian Bogusevic led off the inning with a double to left field. Jason Bourgeois put down a bunt that Dotel couldn't turn into an out, putting men on the corners with no outs. And Sanchez repeated the feat, dropping a bunt that Dotel couldn't corral as Bogusevic raced home. The Cardinals didn't lose ground, only time. That's scarcely any consolation, though, given how little time they have left -- two games remain in the season. Worse yet, Monday's loss was a game in which they were left to lament one missed opportunity after another. As a result, the 2011 season crept one day closer to completion with the Cardinals still a game out. Every day that the Cardinals don't gain ground is a good day for the Braves, who only need to maintain their standing in order to go to the playoffs. Atlanta's magic number dropped to two with two games left. Any combination of two Braves wins and Cardinals losses will eliminate St. Louis from postseason contention. With its next win or St. Louis loss, Atlanta will guarantee no worse than a one-game playoff at Busch Stadium on Thursday. "I look at it like, all it takes is they lose one and we win one," said Lance Berkman. "I think we win the next two games we have an excellent shot. I really feel that way." Still, despite the consolation of Atlanta's loss, Monday was a tough game to take. Jaime Garcia was not especially sharp, and he didn't get away with much of anything. Garcia allowed five baserunners, four of whom scored. He struck out five over his four innings. He left with a 4-1 deficit, though. All the while, the Cardinals let Wandy Rodriguez off the hook again and again, repeatedly failing to capitalize on or maximize offensive opportunities. They didn't score after a leadoff double in the second. They saw a rally short-circuit after one run when Albert Pujols was thrown out trying to score from second on a third-inning single. They hit into a pair of double plays, and they didn't score after putting the first two men on in the seventh. Even in the eighth, when the Cards tied the game against three Houston relievers, they should have salted the game away. A single and a walk set the stage for Berkman, who doubled in both runs to tie the score, and Yadier Molina walked to make it two on with no outs. The Cardinals didn't score again. A sacrifice bunt was followed by a popup and a soft grounder, and the Astros were out of the inning. "We got them on, a couple times got them over," manager Tony La Russa said. "We did a lot of good things. Effort was there. We had a chance to blow it open with a base hit." In the 10th, Molina, who doubled with one out, was caught trying to take third on Ryan Theriot's comebacker, and then Theriot was thrown out trying to steal. St. Louis went 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position on the night, left nine men on base and hit into two double plays. They also lost two runners on the bases -- three if you count Molina in the 10th. Meanwhile, the Astros scarcely mounted a threat at all against the St. Louis bullpen. But when they got one in the 10th, they took advantage. "We have to play for something," Bogusevic said, "and we're not just going to play it out and let the season end without trying hard. You owe it to the game to play hard." The Cardinals played hard as well. They just couldn't convert chances. And at the end they were left without two of their top four power threats. Berkman was removed for pinch-runner Adron Chambers before the bunt in the eighth, and David Freese was lifted for pinch-hitter Daniel Descalso in the seventh. It might not have mattered, though, because every time the Cardinals threatened, the Astros had an answer. "I just look at the effort and what we created," La Russa said, "and we couldn't break through. I give them credit."
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.