LOS ANGELES -- Eight months of hard work by the Cardinals, never mind eight brilliant innings by Adam Wainwright, are in jeopardy because of one harrowing half-inning.
St. Louis faces what has historically been an insurmountable deficit in its National League Division Series after a botched bottom of the ninth resulted in a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. The Redbirds took a hard-earned 2-1 lead into the final frame, only to see two walks, two singles and one enormous defensive miscue add up to a game-ending rally.
Matt Holliday's two-out, bases-empty, two-base error started the ball rolling, and Mark Loretta delivered the telling blow with a bloop single into shallow center field, making a loser of Ryan Franklin and a goat of Holliday.
Franklin couldn't close the door after the error, but if Holliday had caught the relatively routine fly ball off the bat of James Loney, he would never have needed to. Usually a fine defensive outfielder, Holliday said he lost sight of the ball as it descended from the peak of its trajectory.
"Obviously I couldn't see the ball," he said. "I lost it in the lights. I had a good read on it, came in, and as I went to catch it ... the ball was in the lights. At that point you hope it hits your body or hits your glove, that you catch it obviously. It's unfortunate timing. It really is."
Franklin said afterward that he'd be happy to take his chances with that ball hit at Holliday any time. The one time it went wrong, though, was absolutely the worst time.
0-2 Division Series deficits
The series now heads east to St. Louis, with Game 3 set for Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals must win that contest simply to force a Game 4 on Sunday. The Cardinals have never been swept in a Division Series or League Championship Series. However, no team has come from down 0-2 to win a National League Division Series, and only four teams have done it in the American League.
"Right now we're feeling disappointed," manager Tony La Russa said. "But we're not discouraged. There's a big difference in the two. We can win a game, so we have to wait until Saturday. But right now I think it's important to get upset about the game that got away. We did a lot to win that one and didn't win it. Turn the page too quickly means you don't care."
With two outs and the bases empty in the ninth, and the Cardinals up by a run, Loney hit a line drive to left field that looked for all the world like the game's last out. Holliday couldn't corral it, though, and Loney raced all the way to second on the error. The ball hit Holliday in the stomach.
"It's tough to swallow," Holliday said. "Obviously I feel terrible."
Franklin walked Casey Blake at the end of a lengthy battle, bringing up Ronnie Belliard. The former Cardinal, a contributor to St. Louis' run to the 2006 World Series title, poked a single up the middle to tie the game. After Russell Martin walked, Loretta dropped a single into shallow center field to end it.
"I was as sharp as I've been all year," Franklin said. "I was maybe a little surprised that I was, just because this is the first time I've ever pitched in the postseason. But I was calm, had everything going out there. And it just didn't work out."
Colby Rasmus' RBI double in the seventh inning, on Clayton Kershaw's final pitch of a fine performance in its own right, had put the Cardinals ahead in a sensational game more than worthy of the postseason stage. Holliday hit a solo home run for St. Louis, which again had difficulty plating runners once they got on base.
Still, as Holliday put it, "we're not talking about any of that if I catch the ball."
Wainwright was spectacular for eight innings but was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the top of the ninth after a very difficult bottom of the eighth.
Following up a regular season that made him perhaps the Cy Young Award favorite, Wainwright was simply brilliant against the Dodgers. He was every bit as good on Thursday as co-ace Chris Carpenter was shaky on Wednesday. Wainwright retired the first 11 batters in order before Andre Ethier's solo home run, then settled right back in to mowing down Los Angeles hitters. He allowed three hits and one walk and threw more than 70 percent of his 109 pitches for strikes.
"From the first inning on, I thought we had control of that game," he said. "That was a tough way to end up, for sure. A tough one."
Everything was working well for the right-hander, but nothing was better than his curveball. Wainwright's signature pitch had ferocious bite, garnering him a slew of swings-and-misses as well as called strikes.
When he did allow solid contact, which was rare, his defense came to his aid. Ryan Ludwick made a tumbling catch on a Belliard liner in the third, and Julio Lugo ranged far to his right to make an outstanding play to retire Kershaw on a grounder up the middle in the sixth. Ludwick misplayed a ball hit by Rafael Furcal in the sixth, but Brendan Ryan's nifty grab and flip on Matt Kemp's broken-bat grounder ended the inning without incident.
"He's pitched great every time he's got on the mound this year and in the past," Ethier said. "What more can you say than that guy is great. Today, we found a way. We had a little luck on our side and it gave us a chance."
Offensively, the Cardinals were mostly doing exactly the same thing that they did a night before: threatening, but not scoring. In four different innings, they got a runner into scoring position with fewer than two outs, and not once did they get that runner home. After a 3-for-13 night with men in scoring position on Wednesday, St. Louis went 0-for-9 on Thursday. The Cards left seven men on base.
That inability to add on cost them in the ninth, when two runs were enough to win it for the Dodgers.
"I think it's about as tough a loss as you can have, except we still have an opportunity to play Saturday, " La Russa said.