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09/20/08 8:20 PM ET

Pineiro can't keep Cubs from clinching

Defense hurts starter as Cardinals lose at Wrigley Field

CHICAGO -- It was a playoff atmosphere, but only for one team.

Wrigley Field rocked like it was an October night, instead of a September afternoon, as the Cardinals fell to the Cubs, 5-4, on Saturday. The win secured a second straight National League Central championship for Chicago, a title that St. Louis had won in each of the previous three seasons.

As for the Cardinals' playoff chances, they got slimmer once again. St. Louis' elimination number in the chase for the National League Wild Card dropped to three, meaning the Cardinals need little short of a miracle to avoid consecutive postseason misses for the first time since 1997-99.

And though they played the game well for much of the year, the Cardinals didn't look like a playoff team on Saturday. Two errors and a missed double play contributed to Joel Pineiro being saddled with five runs in six innings, though Pineiro pitched much better than that number would indicate. Only three of the runs were earned, and fewer than that were deserved.

"That's part of the game," Pineiro said. "More times than not, they're going to make the plays and do spectacular plays that you never expected. It's just, those things happened. You can't say I blame it on that or this."

Pineiro let the trouble start in the second, allowing a double and a walk to open the inning. But he seemed to have taken the first step toward escaping the jam when Mark DeRosa hit a grounder to Felipe Lopez at second. It was a ball that should have gone for a double play, but Lopez's hesitation cost the Cards. He went to tag the runner coming from first base before deciding to flip to second, and the delay meant that St. Louis didn't execute the twin killing.

"It was just for a split second I tried to tag him, and then I flipped it," said Lopez.

Kosuke Fukudome walked and Ted Lilly struck out, and that should have been the end of the inning. Instead, Alfonso Soriano got to hit with the bases loaded. He delivered, singling to center field to drive in two runs -- and benefiting when Brian Barton's error allowed a third run to score.

"I caught the ball in between hops, and it kind of rolled up my arm instead of actually seeing the ball in," Barton said. "I went after the ball hard and gave it my all. It's one of those unfortunate situations how the game turned out. It turned out to be a big play."

Two innings later, the defensive foibles struck again. Troy Glaus' error allowed Geovany Soto to reach base to start the fourth, and DeRosa doubled Soto home. DeRosa scored on a bunt, and it was 5-0.

"We missed the double play in a three-run inning, and we ran by the ball in left field," manager Tony La Russa said. "Get that double play, and it's different inning. Then the error on the leadoff man. They're a good club. You can't open those opportunities."

After Pineiro and the defense dug a five-run hole, the Cardinals did at least give the home crowd a scare. Pineiro and Ryan Franklin kept the Cubs offense quiet after the fourth inning, and St. Louis mounted a four-run sixth to make it a close game. Lopez hit an RBI single, and Glaus hit a three-run homer, bringing the Cards within a run. But Barton, guilty of the other major misstep, grounded out to end the threat.

The Cardinals never seriously threatened again, and thus they watched their rivals celebrate a title that St. Louis had been chasing as well.

"That was one of the things I told myself -- hopefully no," Pineiro said, in reference to the Cubs clinching. "I wasn't saying I'm going to throw shutout ball, but hopefully they don't do it against us. That was my mentality. I'm pretty sure some of the other guys in here were thinking that. If they do it, hopefully it's not against us."

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