HOUSTON -- Somebody flipped a switch and turned the Cardinals into an underdog, and a wounded one at that.

For the first four games of this postseason, the Cardinals looked almost invincible, playing practically flawless baseball and standing up to every challenge with crisp play and professional acumen. Any physical woes they had during the regular season were pushed aside, and this looked like a team that would be very hard to stop on the road to the World Series.

Suddenly, the Cardinals are looking quite vulnerable, indeed.

Physically battered and unable to catch or create a break these last couple of games, the Cardinals are staring at their biggest challenge of the 2005 season, or at least their most significant one. Down, 2-1, in the National League Championship Series with two more games to be played in Houston, the Cardinals are up against it, big time.

The sky isn't falling. But there are some serious clouds gathering.

They're not looking at the clouds, of course. They're looking at the bright side, which is that this thing's still far from over.

"We win tomorrow, we're tied, 2-2," center fielder Jim Edmonds said after the Cardinals' 4-3 loss Saturday at Minute Maid Park.

Sure, they could very well be right back in control of the series 24 hours from now, and it wouldn't surprise a soul. A win Sunday not only would even the series, but would ensure that the last game at Busch Stadium has not already been played, forcing at least a Game 6 in St. Louis next week.

But as Sunday's pivotal game approaches, the team that was cruising for the first four games of the October tournament is now seeing how the other half lives, putting it all out there on the field but still watching the opponent do all the right things to win.

"We haven't been creating any breaks for ourselves, and they have," Edmonds said. "We haven't been playing very well, and they have."

It has been quite some time since the Cardinals had their backs against the wall like this. Actually, you might say the last time they did was when they returned home to St. Louis last year down, 2-0, to the Red Sox in the World Series, and we all know how that turned out.

That's not to say the Cardinals haven't had their challenges in 2005. They've had plenty.

More than anything else, they've had huge physical mountains to climb this year, losing Scott Rolen for most of the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, and losing corner outfielders Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker for weeks at a time.

But this is the postseason. No matter what you overcome in the regular season, overcoming the same thing in the postseason is that much harder.


Facts Machine: Resilient Cards
This is the second straight season the Cardinals have trailed in the NLCS. St. Louis has bounced back to win the NLCS three times after trailing in the series.
Year
Opponent
Trailing
Series result
2004Houston3-2Won, 4-3
1987San Francisco3-2Won, 4-3
1985Los Angeles2-0Won, 4-2

In the regular season, they had time. Now, time's the enemy, and you can rest assured the Astros won't wait for them to get healthy.

Another Cardinals starter went down Saturday when third baseman Abraham Nunez -- perhaps the MVP of fill-ins for the Cardinals this year as a strong replacement for Rolen -- suffered a bruised left thigh in a collision at third base with the Astros' Jason Lane.

Nunez doesn't know if he'll be able to play in Game 4. Sanders is hopeful he can play after missing Game 3 with a strained neck from a spectacular fall he had on the warning Track in Game 2. And Walker? Well, he just keeps finding a way to play through his neck problems.

And that's where it stands for the Cardinals right now: They've got to find a way, no matter the pain, and no matter who's in the lineup.

"We've got to toughen up," shortstop David Eckstein said. "That's the bottom line. Someone's going to have to play. And whoever is playing needs to step it up. That's why we have 25 guys on this roster. You can't start making excuses."

The Cardinals certainly are not doing that. At this point, they've got to draw upon the resilience they showed in the regular season in working through the injuries, and past them.

It's not like this is new to them.

"That's the way it's been all year, and we won 100 games that way," Walker said.

Added Edmonds: "Our lineup's been thin all year. We've been without three guys for about four of the six months."

Indeed, the Cardinals prevailed over the injuries to win the NL Central by 11 games over these same Astros.

Right now, injuries have become the great equalizer against a team that's just as determined to make this October last longer.

It looked like the Cardinals' chances of reaching the World Series were solid a few days ago, and they still may be. They're facing a challenge that's much the same as what they stared down in the regular season, yet it's all too different because of the circumstances.

Come Sunday, we'll see how the Cardinals meet that challenge, and those circumstances.