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10/16/05 10:18 PM ET

Cards in tough spot after loss

Potential rally in ninth inning fizzles against Astros

HOUSTON -- An uncharacteristic absence of offensive thump has left the Cardinals facing elimination. An equally foreign loss of composure for the Redbirds just added insult to injury on Sunday.

A 2-1 loss to the Astros in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series put the Cards one game away from elimination. They are one loss from seeing a brilliant campaign come up short of the only goal anyone in the St. Louis clubhouse held for the 2005 season: a World Series title.

With the defeat, the Cards trail Houston three games to one in the NLCS, and it's a scene familiar to anyone who saw St. Louis play in the 2004 World Series: the offense has gone quiet. Another exceptional pitching performance -- the Cardinals' series ERA is 2.38 -- was squandered because of inefficient hitting.

"We've pitched well," said manager Tony La Russa, who was ejected in the seventh inning. "We just haven't been good enough offensively."

That was never clearer than in the ninth inning, when the Cardinals put their first two men on against Brad Lidge, but couldn't score. Reggie Sanders hit into a fielder's choice in which Albert Pujols was thrown out at home, and John Mabry slapped a double-play grounder to end the game.

That contrasted dramatically how the Astros scored the go-ahead run, perfectly illustrating how the series has gone for both teams. Two walks, an error, a sacrifice fly and an ejection, but no base hits, all marked a bizarre bottom of the seventh that put the Redbirds and Busch Stadium on the seriously endangered list.

Along with La Russa, Jim Edmonds was ejected. The Cardinals were consistently frustrated with ball-and-strike calls by home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

La Russa was tossed in the seventh after Jason Marquis walked Lance Berkman to load the bases with one out. La Russa completely lost his cool upon being given the thumb by Cuzzi, making his way onto the field and engaging in a fierce argument with Cuzzi. Crew chief Tim McClelland eventually intervened, but play was delayed while the tete-a-tete went on.

Two pitches later, Morgan Ensberg lifted a sacrifice fly that broke a 1-1 tie and put the Astros in position to win the game.

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

"We didn't get the job done," said Marquis. "I've got to make pitches, whether the ump is calling them or not. I'm facing the Astros lineup. I'm not facing the umpires."

Had Marquis been able to field a Craig Biggio bunt cleanly, the situation might never have arisen. Orlando Palmeiro drew a leadoff walk, and when Biggio tried to sacrifice Palmeiro over, Marquis couldn't glove the ball off the ground. Chris Burke flied out for what would have been the second out before Berkman's walk.

It was one of many situations where Cardinals pitchers had to pitch out of trouble. Until the ninth, though, Houston's hurlers for the most part avoided getting into trouble in the first place. Brandon Backe faced the minimum through the first three innings, with David Eckstein's game-opening walk being immediately erased by a double play.

Albert Pujols finally got a chance to hit with runners in scoring position in the fourth, and he drove in a run, but "crooked numbers" remained elusive for the Cardinals, who haven't scored more than one run in an inning since the fifth frame of Game 1.

A walk to Eckstein and Edmonds' double gave Pujols a tailor-made chance, men on second and third and no outs, and his sacrifice fly put St. Louis on the board. Backe escaped without further damage, though, getting a critical strikeout of Sanders on a 3-2 count before Mabry flied out to the track.

Far more deflating was how quickly the Redbirds gave the run back. One pitch erased all that work when Jason Lane turned on a pitch from Jeff Suppan and dropped his first home run of the postseason into the shallow seats above the scoreboard in left field.

It was the only run allowed by Suppan, who fought through five fine innings despite not having pitched since Sept. 25. Suppan held Houston to three base hits and three walks, but needed 93 pitches to make it through five.

"It was a close ballgame and I was just going out there trying to make pitches," Suppan said. "When I'm in that feeling, I'm just focusing on one pitch at a time. I'm just trying to keep it close."

The score remained knotted until the fateful seventh. It was only after the Cards fell behind, and their manager was excused, that they gave the Astros a couple of frights.

Mark Grudzielanek emerged from a brutal funk to single to right in the eighth. Marquis, at least arguably the best-hitting pitcher in baseball, was called on to sacrifice rather than swing the bat. Perhaps not surprisingly, the man who has sacrificed just four times over two full seasons with the Cardinals didn't succeed. He popped up to the catcher, and Eckstein flied out to make it two outs for Edmonds.

"It was a good pitch down and away," Marquis said. "I had a bad bat angle. I got a little overanxious and probably jumped out of the box a little too quick."

Still, with slugger and Astro-killer Edmonds coming to the plate, all hope was not lost. Edmonds worked reliever Dan Wheeler to a 3-1 count, then found a pitch that he felt was high and inside. Edmonds believed he had walked, but Cuzzi called strike two. The center fielder was quickly tossed for arguing.

"I've been playing this game for 12 years," said Edmonds. "I know what's going on. I'm not trying to get thrown out of a playoff game. I don't think I was adamant. I wasn't trying to do anything special. I was just trying to ask a question."

John Rodriguez stepped in for Edmonds and crushed a ball to the hill in center field, but Willy Taveras chased it down for a loud out.

"I hit it to the wrong part of the field," said Rodriguez. "I hit it about 420 feet and it still didn't go out. That's baseball."

Even that bad luck seemed minimal compared with what happened in the ninth. When the Cards put two on with no out, even against Lidge, it appeared their luck might finally be turning. But Pujols headed home and was thrown out easily. Even though Larry Walker, who had singled, moved all the way to third in the confusion, the first out was a critical one.

Pujols went against the wishes of third-base coach Jose Oquendo, who preached caution.

"He told me to stay at third," said Pujols. "But I thought the ball kind of got in the grass, and my instinct when I saw the ball was I had to go to the plate. It didn't matter, because Larry had a very heads-up play.

"Maybe if I would have stayed at third, maybe Ensberg would throw that ball to first base and it'd be close or he'd make a bad throw, you know? It's just part of the game, man. Things happen. You say why did this thing happen? You can't always figure it out."

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