ST. LOUIS -- The baseball left Ben Francisco's bat like a heat-seeking missile, flying low to the ground toward left-center field at Busch Stadium.
He didn't know.
The pitchers in the Phillies' bullpen stood up, craning their necks to get a look at where the ball might land. Shane Victorino, who was standing on second base, prayed it would make its way to the wall to allow himself and Carlos Ruiz to score with two outs in the seventh inning. Cole Hamels was in the clubhouse, icing his left shoulder while watching on TV, hoping the ball would fall for a hit.
Francisco, who should have known better than anybody if the ball had a chance to clear the fence, had no clue he had the biggest hit of the season until he watched it bounce off the corner of the bullpen wall for a pinch-hit three-run home run to lead the Phils to a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
A victory on Wednesday in Game 4 would send Philadelphia to the NL Championship Series for the fourth consecutive season.
"When you get to the postseason, you can change your season," Francisco said. "You can make something out of it. That's what I tried to do."
Francisco made his mark on the 2011 season, which had been a frustrating one for him. He won the everyday job in right field in Spring Training, but struggled early and lost the job to rookie Domonic Brown. Francisco's playing time dropped further as John Mayberry established himself as the team's fourth outfielder and the Phillies acquired Hunter Pence in a trade with the Houston Astros on July 29.
It was a thrilling moment for Francisco in a game full of them, depending on one's perspective.
"It was a heartbreaker," Cards first baseman Albert Pujols said. "Jaime [Garcia] was cruising pretty much all game, and then one ball up, a good swing, and there you go, out of the park."
Victorino hit a leadoff single to start the seventh inning. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa then decided to intentionally walk Ruiz with two outs to face Francisco, who was 1-for-18 in his postseason career, 1-for-9 against Garcia and had not homered since May 25.
"If you follow our club with Ruiz over the years, he's gotten as many big hits as the guys in the middle of the lineup," La Russa said. "He just terrorizes us, and he's already hit two balls hard. The matchup we liked, I liked. I made the decision. Francisco has had a tough time with Jaime, so it really wasn't a tough call."
True, but Francisco had a good feeling stepping into the batter's box. He had been swinging the bat well recently, and had taken a nearly identical pitch from Garcia to the warning track in left field on Sept. 16 at Citizens Bank Park.
"The last time, I got it off the end of the bat a little bit," Francisco said.
This time, he didn't miss.
"I got all of the barrel," Francisco said.
The game was scoreless to that point, with Garcia dominating Philadelphia like he had in the past -- he was 2-0 with a 0.96 ERA in four career starts against them -- while Hamels grinded through six innings. The Cardinals scored a run in the seventh before making things hairy for the Phillies in the eighth and ninth.
Right-hander Vance Worley allowed a leadoff single to Ryan Theriot in the eighth. Left-hander Antonio Bastardo retired Nick Punto for the first out, but right-hander Brad Lidge replaced him and allowed consecutive singles to Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal to load the bases.
Charlie Manuel then did something he had not tried once this season: He asked Ryan Madson to pick up a five-out save.
In fact, Madson had not had more than a one-inning save since April 7, 2010.
"It was exciting," Madson said. "I knew it was going to be a big thing to get through."
Madson threw Allen Craig an 0-1 fastball, which he ripped toward second baseman Chase Utley. Utley fielded the ball cleanly and darted toward second base. He stepped on the bag, spun and fired a throw to first to get Craig to complete the inning-ending double play.
"He hit it so hard, I knew I had some time to get to the bag," Utley said. "Jimmy [Rollins] was playing a little deep. I knew I had two options: flip it to Jimmy or take it myself. I chose the latter."
"It was huge," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "They had all the momentum on their side, the crowd, everyone was in it. We just needed that one big play, and Mad Dog gave us the pitch."
But if Howard thought that would be the last tight spot of the game, he was wrong. Pujols hit a leadoff double to left field to start the ninth. He scored on Yadier Molina's two-out single to center field to make it a one-run game. Cardinals fans, who fell silent following Francisco's homer, were roaring now.
Theriot stepped to the plate. He was 4-for-4 in the game, but Madson got him to ground out to Utley to end the game.
"Obviously, we're feeling real good about where we're at right now," Lidge said. "Ben really came through for us tonight. That was huge for us. We have two Roys going for us. If we need to get to that second one, you've got to feel pretty good about your chances when that's the case."
Roy Oswalt will pitch Game 4 for the Phillies. The last time he faced the Cardinals in the postseason at Busch Stadium he won Game 6 of the 2005 NLCS to send the Astros to the World Series. Should things not work out for Philadelphia on Wednesday, it would play host to Game 5 on Friday at Citizens Bank Park. Roy Halladay would start that game.
"The confidence is there," Victorino said. "We're in the driver's seat again, and we've put ourselves in good position."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.