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10/16/05 9:00 PM ET

Cards push frustrations aside

St. Louis one loss away from elimination in NLCS

HOUSTON -- Their season teetering on the brink, their manager ejected two innings earlier, their division rivals leaping around on the field like they'd already won something, the Cardinals had plenty of reasons to be frustrated at the end of Sunday's game at Minute Maid Park.

And they may very well have been. Who could blame them after all that happened in their Game 4 loss to the Astros?

But when it came time to face the cameras and the recorders, the Cardinals already had their game faces on for Game 5.

"The proverbial fat lady hasn't sung yet," said veteran right fielder Larry Walker, managing a bit of a smile.

And if superstar first baseman Albert Pujols was carrying the Game 4 frustration around with him, it wasn't showing. He, too, broke out with a few smiles as he addressed the media, espousing his faith in this club's resilience.

They might not have been put up against the wall quite like this, but Pujols says they're all about responding to challenges, and this is one heavy-duty challenge in front of them, being down, 3-1, in the NLCS.

"We're really strong, man. We're really strong as a team," Pujols said. "We bounce every time that we're down. That's why we're here. We'll be ready to go. If we win that game tomorrow, we go back to St. Louis. We don't look at losses. We look at what we can do in tomorrow's game."

They might have washed it away before they left Minute Maid Park, but the Cardinals' frustration was evident during Sunday's game, make no mistake.

It was building up over the course of Sunday's game, and it started to bubble to the top around the sixth inning, when even mild-mannered leadoff man David Eckstein had to give home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi a piece of his mind after a strikeout.

By the bottom of the seventh inning, it all boiled over, with La Russa getting tossed from the game as he argued with Cuzzi. The next inning, Jim Edmonds was tossed for asking about a strike call that he felt almost hit him.

Putting the disputed balls-and-strikes calls aside, if that's at all possible for Cardinals Nation at this point, this group of veterans knew full well they had a chance to win this one -- just as they did the game before, and the game before that.

Back from the Brink?
Sixty-two teams in postseason history have found themselves in a 3-1 hole in a best-of-seven series. Only 10 of those teams have battled back to win the series.
Team up 3-1
Series winner
2004 ALCSNew YorkBoston
2003 NLCSChicagoFlorida
1996 NLCSSt. LouisAtlanta
1986 ALCSCaliforniaBoston
1985 World SeriesSt. LouisKansas City
1985 ALCSTorontoKansas City
1979 World SeriesBaltimorePittsburgh
1968 World SeriesSt. LouisDetroit
1958 World SeriesMilwaukeeNew York (AL)
1925 World SeriesWashingtonPittsburgh

But everything that came up roses early in this postseason is coming up thorns these last few games.

A few cases in point:

    • Pujols absolutely creams a pitch from Astros starter Brandon Backe to left field in the first inning. It's foul by inches, and Pujols winds up striking out.

    •The Cardinals get runners on second and third in the fourth with no outs, and all they get out of it is a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead that lasts all of a half-inning.

    • They have their 3-4-5 guys coming up in the ninth, get the first two on to put Astros closer Brad Lidge on the ropes, but are unable to score the tying run.

You can peg that to the Cardinals not coming through, or you can peg it to the Astros' pitching stepping up when it needs to. You might peg it to calls going the other way, too.

Overall, you just have to peg it to this being a very tight series that's turning on the head of a pin, and the Cardinals keep getting stuck with the pointy end.

"When the series started, I said it was going to be one- or two-run games, and that's the way it's been," Walker said. "I don't think the other side is tearing it up much, either."

In the end, the Cardinals just have to turn the page and think of what Boston did in 2004 when it was down, 3-1, to the Yankees, or what the Marlins did in 2003 when they were down, 3-1, to the Cubs.

The Cards are still kicking, even if they feel a little kicked around about now.

"Today, we lost. But we have tomorrow," Game 4 starter Jeff Suppan said.

Plenty rides on Monday's game, obviously. A win, and it's back to the Red Sea at Busch Stadium with a chance for a huge comeback. A loss, and Busch Stadium has seen its final game, and another quest to bring the World Series trophy back to St. Louis will have fallen short.

For now, it's all about being short-sighted for the Cardinals, as in focusing on Game 5 and nothing else before or after it.

"We can't think about Wednesday or Thursday," Pujols said. "We have to think about tomorrow."

One game at a time has a whole new meaning now for the Cardinals.

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