WASHINGTON -- The Cardinals will only have so many more chances like this one. In fact, they may not have any more chances like the one -- ones -- they were handed on Thursday night. They can ill-afford to continue letting them slip away.
St. Louis led by two runs in the fifth with a Cy Young Award winner on the mound, and then by two in the ninth with its closer on the mound. In both cases, it wasn't good enough. The Redbirds fell to the last-place Nationals, 11-10, in a 13-inning loss that may well be the club's most agonizing of the year to date -- arguably topping even the back-to-back late-inning gut-wrenchers in Denver in July.
"Tough game," manager Tony La Russa lamented. "Did a lot of good things and messed up a few, and ended up on the short end of it."
It was a quiet visitors' clubhouse after the game, the night made worse by injuries to the team's two best offensive players. First baseman Albert Pujols rolled his ankle trying to catch a foul popup and outfielder Matt Holliday was hit on the left hand by a pitch. Both players believe their injuries to be minor, but it was just two more toppers to an already lousy night.
Ian Desmond's one-out RBI single against Blake Hawksworth finally ended the marathon that was the longest Nationals game of the year at more than 4 1/2 hours. Nyjer Morgan was hit by a pitch, and after Ryan Zimmerman struck out, Alberto Gonzalez singled to right. Desmond hit a chopper into a drawn-in infield that bounced off of Aaron Miles' glove and into shallow field, scoring Morgan.
"It felt pretty good," Desmond said. "There was no exhaustion on our part. We were ready to go 10 more innings if we had to."
It was the second time in three nights that the Cardinals sent one of their co-aces to the mound against a cellar-dwelling team, staked him to a lead, and still lost. This time, though, the Redbirds also wasted a stirring four-run top of the ninth before falling to their third straight defeat. Also squandered in the defeat was the 400th home run of Pujols' Major League career.
The Reds were off on Thursday, so the Cards now trail Cincinnati by four games in the National League Central division with 37 to play. They're in third place in the NL Wild Card chase, 1 1/2 games behind the Giants and one game behind the Phillies. Philadelphia and San Francisco combined to go 1-6 over the past four days, yet the Cardinals are only one-half game closer to the Wild Card lead. They're 4-8 since sweeping the Reds at Great American Ball Park two weeks ago, and have lost five games' worth of ground to Cincinnati in that span.
"We've got to win ballgames," said starter Chris Carpenter. "That's what it comes down to."
The defeat resulted in part from the very scenario that La Russa said before the game he wanted to avoid. Closer Ryan Franklin hadn't pitched in five days, so La Russa wanted to be sure to get him in the game. Franklin pitched a seamless eighth inning, but in a close game, the manager knew that his closer might also need to pitch the ninth. That's exactly what happened, and things went awry for Franklin in the ninth.
Gonzalez led off with a single, and after Franklin struck out Desmond, he fell behind Roger Bernadina. Franklin left a 3-1 fastball up and over the plate, and Bernadina tattooed it into the right-field stands for a game-tying homer.
"I didn't want to walk him," Franklin said. "That's the way this game goes. You make one bad pitch... It doesn't always happen like that, but it did tonight. But I wasn't going to walk him."
It just wasn't the Cards' night on the mound, though, long before Franklin got in the game. Three of the six runs against Carpenter were unearned, but he was dinged for 10 hits and allowed multiple baserunners in four of his six innings. He may not have been as bad as six runs in six frames, but he wasn't as good as the Cardinals are used to seeing him be.
"I was feeling all right," Carpenter said, "and then as the game went on, my location got a little worse. They did some good things offensively and put some at-bats against me that didn't allow me to pitch the way I wanted to pitch."
It was magnified, because Carpenter didn't need to be great for the Cardinals to win. They gave him five runs, four of them in a fourth-inning outburst. They led, 5-3, in the fifth, long before going up by two runs once again in the ninth. And still it added up to a third straight loss, all of them to the Nationals and Pirates.
St. Louis fell behind early in an ugly third inning set up by Felipe Lopez's one-out throwing error. That put Adam Kennedy on second base and set a three-run outburst in motion. Morgan's grounder advanced Kennedy to third, and Zimmerman singled on a high chopper up the middle to make it 1-1. Adam Dunn doubled Zimmerman to third, and Desmond poked a single to the left side that gave Washington the lead.
Yet the Cards roared back, aided by the Pujols' historic homer. That started a barrage of baserunners, as six straight Cards got on in a four-run fourth. Carpenter, though, couldn't hold the lead. A run in the fifth cut the lead in half, and in the sixth, Carpenter and the Cards fell behind. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases, and two more sac flies made it 6-5, Nationals -- though the game was far from over.
The deficit grew as large as 8-5 before the Cardinals inched back into the game, first on Yadier Molina's RBI single in the eighth. In the ninth, Brendan Ryan doubled in a run and Holliday was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to tie the score. Randy Winn poked a two-run single for the lead, but the Cards couldn't hold it and didn't score again.
The last real highlight for the Redbirds came in the 12th, when Washington had two on with two outs. Kennedy hit a blooper into shallow center field, and Ryan made a spectacular, tumbling snow-cone catch to prevent the winning run from scoring. But the Cards couldn't capitalize on the momentum, and an inning later, they had another galling loss.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.