The St. Louis Cardinals picked the wrong time to be giving away games like the last two they've played against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It could end up costing them a wild card berth — and they all know what they did last year after earning one on the final day of the regular season.
Closer Jason Motte, brought in to protect a one-run lead for Jaime Garcia, gave up a tying RBI double by Luiz Cruz and a run-scoring single by pinch-hitter Juan Rivera, sending the Cardinals to a 4-3 loss and dropping the defending World Series champions into a tie with the Dodgers for the second extra postseason ticket with 16 games remaining for both clubs.
After this four-game series concludes on Sunday, St. Louis will play its next nine games against the Astros and Cubs — who are a combined 83 games under .500 and 69 1-2 games out of first place in the NL Central. The Cards put themselves into this precarious position by losing 13 of their last 28 games.
"We invest ourselves a lot in every game, but obviously this one stings more than others," said first baseman Allen Craig, who homered and drove in three runs against Joe Blanton. "It's a tough loss, but putting your head down and being overly concerned about it isn't going to get us anywhere. So we've just got to play better and stay positive. We're still in a good spot."
Motte (4-5) retired his first two batters, but Andre Ethier kept the Dodgers alive with a single. Pinch-runner Dee Gordon stole second before Cruz drove him in with a drive that center fielder Jon Jay barely missed on a diving attempt in front of the warning track in right-center.
Rivera batted for A.J. Ellis and lined a single off the tip of second baseman Daniel Descalso's glove, enabling pinch-runner Elian Herrera to score the winning run.
"This was pretty big. It was definitely one of our most exciting games of the season so far," Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. "Cruz has definitely been amazing for us. He's been hitting the ball, getting those big hits for us and doing what it takes to win. That was an all-around good team win for us, and we needed that going into tomorrow."
On Friday night, Cruz helped beat the Cardinals 8-5 with a go-ahead three-run homer in the sixth against Edward Mujica.
"It's unbelievable. It's like a dream for me," Cruz said. "I'm just trying to go out there and give a hundred percent and play hard every time. I'm having the chance to come through in big situations. I'm not going to say I'm lucky, but I've been really concentrating and having good at-bats."
Ronald Belisario (6-1) pitched 1 1-3 innings for the victory. Kemp helped make it possible in the top of the ninth. He crashed into the fence trying to catch Yadier Molina's drive over his head, but recovered in time and kept him from stretching his hit into a triple with a brilliant somersaulting throw to Cruz.
"When Molina hit the ball, I didn't know hard he hit it, but it just kept carrying," Kemp said. "I thought I might have had a play at the wall and banged into it, but I wanted to get the ball, pick it up and try to make a good throw. It turned out to be a pretty good one. That was a big out."
Kemp, whose swing hasn't been the same since he crashed into the fence at Coors Field on consecutive days (Aug. 27-28), was 0 for 4 and struck out three times in a game for the fifth time this season. He is 5 for 48 with a homer and two RBIs in his last 12 games since the Dodgers left Denver, but he is still playing with the same reckless abandon as before he got hurt.
"For me, it's all about winning," he said. "I mean, you try not to do stupid things like crashing into fences. But when I'm out there, man, I'm just trying to make a play and make things happen. I crashed into the wall, but it didn't faze me."
Blanton gave up three runs and four hits in 5 2-3 innings and struck out six.
"Blanton did a really good job of throwing all of his pitches for strikes," Craig said. "He got his fastball on the inside corner and had good command. He didn't make too many mistakes."
A disputed call on a bang-bang play at first base enabled St. Louis to snap a 2-all tie in the sixth. Garcia drew a leadoff walk, ending a string of 13 consecutive batters retired by Blanton, and Jay followed with a single. One out later, Matt Holliday hit a potential double-play grounder to shortstop Hanley Ramirez and just beat the relay to first from second baseman Mark Ellis.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly went out to argue with umpire Dana DeMuth, and shortly after he returned to the dugout, Craig lined a single to left on an 0-2 pitch to drive in Garcia and chase Blanton.
Craig, batting an NL-best .393 with runners in scoring position, missed the first month of the season on the disabled list while recovering from a fractured right knee cap and sat out another 14 games in May with a left hamstring strain.
Blanton, who has surrendered an NL-worst 29 home runs, gave up Craig's 21st of the season in the first inning after a two-out single by Holliday.
The Dodgers got one of the runs back in the bottom half when Shane Victorino reached on a throwing error by Descalso, stole second and scored on a two-out single by Adrian Gonzalez. Mark Ellis tied it in the third with a leadoff homer into the lower seats in the left field corner on a full count.
NOTES: Cardinals RF Carlos Beltran did not start because of tightness in his lower back. ... Motte's blown save was his seventh in 41 chances. ... Descalso, making his 10th start at shortstop since All-Star Rafael Furcal went on the disabled list with a right elbow strain on Aug. 31, made his second error of the game when he booted Blanton's leadoff grounder toward second base in the fifth. ... The gametime temperature was 95 degrees, one more than Friday night. ... Blanton has a career record of 6-13 with nine no-decisions when allowing a home run in the first inning. ... Before the game, the Dodgers announced that reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw would not make his scheduled start in Sunday's series finale because of inflammation in his right hip. The 24-year-old left-hander will go to New York to see a hip specialist on Tuesday.