PITTSBURGH -- All the near-certainties, the strengths, the matchups that the Cardinals had relied upon to position themselves as the National League's top team were there to seize on Sunday.
But despite Carlos Beltran's best attempts to carry his team past nemesis Francisco Liriano, the Cards were unable to fall back on all else that had gotten them into the postseason. Seth Maness couldn't get the ground ball. Kevin Siegrist didn't retire the lefty. The offense, one that put up historic numbers with runners in scoring position, squandered every such chance when Beltran wasn't hitting.
With several of Sunday's outcomes bucking season trends, the Cardinals watched the Pirates polish off a 5-3 victory in Game 3 of the NL Division Series. Playing in front of the largest crowd in PNC Park history (40,489), the Bucs moved one win away from discarding the team that topped them in the NL Central.
The loss creates a must-win Game 4 for the Cards and Michael Wacha, who will be making his postseason debut Monday (2 p.m. CT on TBS) in a ballpark where they have won just three times in 11 games this season.
"We've been in this situation," Beltran said of his club, which went 2-1 in elimination games last season. "Last year, we were in this situation a lot. So I think we're fine."
Though Joe Kelly gave the Cardinals a plenty serviceable start, he wasn't near as dominant as his other three starts against the Pirates this season. Two first-inning runs provided Pittsburgh the early advantage, and the Bucs capitalized again when Kelly slipped in the sixth.
It was then that manager Mike Matheny had to begin picking spots for his bullpen, one that has five rookies and only three holdovers from Opening Day. With the game even at 2 and Kelly in some trouble, Matheny chose to intentionally walk Pedro Alvarez -- who had homered in the first two games of the series but struck out in his first two at-bats against Kelly -- to load the bases with one out for Russell Martin.
Matheny ended Kelly's day there, turning instead to ground-ball specialist Maness to pull out some of his escape magic. The rookie right-hander led all NL relievers with 16 double plays during the regular season.
"[We] figured that was a great strength of ours," Matheny said. "It's something that's worked for us all season, so we're going to stick with it."
Martin swung at Maness' first pitch and delivered a sacrifice fly, the first allowed by Maness all season and just the second Martin has hit in two years.
"I was obviously trying to get a ground ball there and got beat," Maness said. "Usually I'm able to keep it down. But he put a good enough swing on it and got enough on it to get that run in."
The Cardinals did claw back, riding Beltran's bat to tie the game for a second time. Having already delivered a two-run single off Liriano in the fifth, Beltran crushed his second homer of the series to even the game against Mark Melancon in the eighth.
With rookie Trevor Rosenthal being held for a possible save situation, Matheny looked to postseason newbies Carlos Martinez and Siegrist to navigate the eighth and preserve the tie. Neither could get through it cleanly.
Martinez allowed two of the three batters he faced to reach before Siegrist entered to face Alvarez. The matchup overwhelmingly favored St. Louis. Alvarez entered with a .180 average against lefties. Siegrist, who hadn't been scored upon since a July appearance in Pittsburgh, had limited left-handed batters to eight hits in 68 at-bats.
But no one has driven in more runs against Cards pitching in the last two seasons than Alvarez, and he added to that total with one that particularly stung. His single pushed in the go-ahead run. Martin followed with an RBI single to pad the lead.
"I was just really hoping to get a ground ball there," Siegrist said. "I thought I made a good pitch, and it found a hole."
"Kevin Siegrist has done such a great job for us, especially as a young guy," Matheny said. "That's the matchup we wanted. And today they won."
The porous bullpen foiled the Cardinals' attempts to finally win in one of Liriano's starts. They had more success against the lefty on Sunday than in their previous three meetings this season, but extended at-bats and solid contact only resulted in two runs in his six innings.
At the end of the night, the Cards' Nos. 3-6 hitters had gone a combined 1-for-16. Pete Kozma reached base three times from the eight-hole, but even that couldn't spark much. The team's only hit with runners in scoring position was Beltran's single. The club is now 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position in the series.
"I'm very pleased with the job I did tonight," said Liriano, who entered 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA against St. Louis this season. "I missed my spots a lot. It was a battle out there."
Kelly, on the other hand, was hurt by walks. As in the sixth, Kelly walked Andrew McCutchen in the first to set off a two-run inning. The Pirates capitalized on Kozma's throwing error and Marlon Byrd's two-out, two-run single. Those two runs equaled the total Kelly had given up in his 18 innings as a starter against Pittsburgh this season.
Kelly settled in after getting through the 29-pitch frame and pitched much of the night amid chants of his name.
"It was fun," Kelly said of the atmosphere. "It was one of the most fun games I ever pitched in. It was very exciting."
The stadium will be just as electric on Monday, as the Pirates seek their first NL Championship Series berth since '92. The Cardinals will take the field with the intention of bringing the series home.
"I mean, it's now or never," Yadier Molina said. "They have a great team. We have a great team also. We have to be ready to score early and try to win tomorrow."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.