ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals are once again playing for their lives. At least that's nothing new for them.
A 3-2 loss to the Phillies sent St. Louis to the brink of elimination on Tuesday night, as the Cards trail, 2-1, in the best-of-five National League Division Series. St. Louis had chance after chance against Cole Hamels and Philadelphia's relief corps, but simply could not convert baserunners into runs.
As a result, the odds are stacked strongly against the Redbirds. In the Wild Card era, teams that win two of the first three games in a Division Series have won the series 30 out of 36 times. St. Louis has its two best starting pitchers, Edwin Jackson and Chris Carpenter, set to go in Game 4 and a potential Game 5.
Ben Francisco's three-run pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning, off of the previously impregnable Jaime Garcia, provided all of the Phillies' scoring. The visitors barely had any chances at all, but converting on one of them was enough.
By contrast, the Cardinals tallied runner after runner, chance after chance, and had almost nothing to show for it. St. Louis left a staggering 14 men on base and went 3-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Several Cards noted the difficult hitting conditions created by the late-afternoon start time, but those same conditions existed for both clubs.
The Cardinals made Hamels work extremely hard, chasing him after six innings and 117 pitches. Once he was out, they were able to make more headway against the Phil' bullpen, but the three-run deficit was too great.
"Cole did a great job getting out of jams," said Skip Schumaker. "You've got to give him credit. We had opportunities, and that's all you can really ask for with good hitters at the plate. Sometimes you get through it and sometimes you don't. We didn't push through today."
The game turned rapidly on a series of tactical decisions in the sixth and seventh. With two on and two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Garcia stayed in to hit and struck out against a tiring Hamels, who was removed after the inning. Garcia, who had already shown some signs of heading in the wrong direction, then got into trouble quickly in the top of the seventh -- though he also nearly got himself out of it.
Garcia had been untouchable in the early going, but he had shown signs of slipping even before the fateful seventh. After throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 10 batters, he went 1-0 to 13 of the remaining 19 he faced. Still, as he entered the seventh, the Busch Stadium scoreboard was filled with zeroes, and it would have been difficult for manager Tony La Russa to lift the lefty for a pinch-hitter -- even one as dangerous as Matt Holliday.
Shane Victorino led off the seventh with a single and took second on a passed ball, a key free base that changed the inning drastically. John Mayberry Jr. flied out, and Placido Polanco hit a routine grounder to third, a ball that could have been a double play with a runner on first. Instead, it simply brought up Carlos Ruiz and led to the second decision that changed the game.
Knowing Ruiz's reputation as a big-game player, La Russa elected to walk him intentionally. That brought up Francisco, who jumped a 1-0 fastball and deposited it in the visitors' bullpen.
"The first pitch was a slider in the dirt," Garcia said. "Then the second pitch, [I] made a mistake and paid for it. It was a fastball that stayed up in the zone, right over the plate, and he put a good swing on it."
The Cardinals had Octavio Dotel ready, though Dotel surely would have faced a left-hander instead of Francisco. Instead, it was Garcia against the right-hander Francisco, who had been 1-for-9 against him -- a number La Russa cited postgame.
St. Louis' bullpen locked down once again after that, allowing the offense to get back in the game, and the Cards nearly pulled off another shocking comeback. They fell short, though, and thus they were left to lament missed chances against Hamels and the relief corps.
Allen Craig hit sharply into a double play with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth, ending an extremely promising inning. In the ninth, Albert Pujols doubled and Yadier Molina singled him in with two outs, but closer Ryan Madson finished it off when Ryan Theriot grounded out.
"I wasn't thinking about the score or anything," Madson said. "I was thinking about making pitches. I didn't feel real good mechanically, so I just wanted to make sure to try and stay clean ... and not try to do too much."
Had the game gone another inning or two, it might have been enough. Now the Cardinals' season is down to one game.
"We've been in this situation before," Pujols said, "and now we just try to make it interesting, see if we can play a game Friday. ... It's not going to be easy, but who said in baseball that things are easy?"
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.