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10/15/05 6:45 PM ET

Collision knocks Nunez out of Game 3

Third baseman's status for Game 4 unknown

HOUSTON -- By the time Abraham Nunez hit the ground, he didn't know what he'd hurt. He only knew he was hurt.

After a jarring collision at third base with Houston's Jason Lane in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series left him in pain on the infield dirt at Minute Maid Park, the Cardinals third baseman was just hoping against hope that he hadn't suffered a knee injury that might disable him for a long period of time.

Nunez was happy to find out later that he'd suffered a contusion of his left quadriceps and no damage to the knee.

"If he'd have hit me in the knee, I'd have been done," Nunez said after the Cardinals' 4-3 loss to the Astros, putting St. Louis in a 2-1 hole in the best-of-seven series.

There definitely were some moments of anxiety from the moment he hit the ground.

"You can't pinpoint it," Nunez said. "It's just sore all over at that point. Once I came up [to the clubhouse], I still thought it was my knee."

Having found out the better news, Nunez doesn't know whether he'll be available for Sunday's Game 4.

"It's kind of sore right now," Nunez said. "We'll see how it works out."

Said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa: "I don't think he twisted it. It's just a bruise. We'll see how he feels [Sunday]."

Nunez was injured when a throw from right fielder Larry Walker soared over the cutoff man but came up short enough to make the third baseman lunge into Lane's path as he was sliding. With the throw coming up short, Nunez said he knew he had to go after the ball before it struck Lane.

"It would have been a bang-bang play," he said. "I tried to catch the ball before it hit him so it wouldn't ricochet and let them score a run there."

The impact knocked Nunez's glove from his hand and sent him tumbling as his left leg struck the left leg of Lane.

"It felt like I got shot," Nunez said of his meeting with the Astros' 6-foot-2, 220-pound right fielder. "He's a big guy and he was running at full speed."

Said Lane: "It was just kind of a glancing clip. He was leaving his feet as I was going by him. Our knees kind of hit. I watched the replay of it, and it looked like, actually, he got up over me. Hopefully, it's not too bad. You don't like to see a guy go down like that."

Nunez, who has filled in admirably for injured star third baseman Scott Rolen much of the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs, was helped off the field and replaced by Hector Luna.

On the very next play, the Cardinals suffered a consequence of the unexpected change when Luna, who hadn't played yet during the postseason, fielded a chopper to third cleanly. But with Lane running home, Luna threw the ball well over the head of catcher Yadier Molina, allowing Lane to score.

If Nunez is unable to play Sunday, the Cardinals will have to decide between left-handed swinging John Mabry or right-handed swinging Luna to play third base against the Astros and right-handed starter Brandon Backe. Mabry made 12 starts at third base in the regular season, and Luna made four. Mabry is 2-for-3 with a homer against Backe; Luna is 0-for-2.

Nunez, who came to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, started 77 games during the regular season and had played every inning of the postseason at third base before his injury. With All-Star Rolen shutting it down and undergoing shoulder surgery in late July, Nunez started 53 of the last 66 games for the Cardinals at third, filling in for a game at shortstop and six at second base while sitting out only five starts during that time.

His injury stacks up with neck ailments that kept Reggie Sanders out of Game 3 and have had Walker on a day-to-day basis for much of the season. Nobody knows better than Nunez that the Cardinals have dealt with the injuries well all year long -- he's been a big part of the solution there.

Nunez is taking an optimistic approach now, knowing that his injury wasn't as bad as he'd originally feared.

"It's something you really can't control," Nunez said. "Maybe it means something good is ahead for us now."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.