The Cardinals lost for the first time this year when they led after seven or eight innings. They were 37-0 when taking a lead into the eighth and 38-0 when leading going into the ninth.
It wasn't just a gut-wrenching loss, it was historic. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no Cardinals team had allowed nine runs in the ninth inning since a 10-run ninth in an 18-2 loss to the Pirates on Aug. 6, 1959. Also per Elias, St. Louis hadn't lost a game it led by seven or more runs since June 10, 1998, against the White Sox, and hadn't lost when leading by six or more in the ninth since Aug. 26, 1998, against Florida.
"Never in my career have I been associated with a better comeback than that," said Rockies manager Jim Tracy.
With St. Louis leading, 9-3, Miguel Olivo singled against Dennys Reyes to lead off the ninth. Smith lined out to first base, the only time the Cardinals retired him all night. Melvin Mora singled and Clint Barmes walked, and a passed ball by Yadier Molina allowed the first run to cross the plate.
Franklin came in for Reyes, and Chris Iannetta welcomed him with a home run on a 3-2 pitch, making it a two-run game. Dexter Fowler doubled, but Brad Hawpe grounded into the second out, putting the Cardinals one out from escaping. The tying run was at the plate, though, and Franklin was searching.
"I was just trying to make pitches," Franklin said. "It seemed like I'd make some, and then I'd hang a splitter, it wouldn't break, wouldn't go down like it was supposed to. Then I'd throw a good one. Pretty weird. But bottom line is I just didn't get it done."
With Randy Winn playing deep, as though to avoid an extra-base hit, Carlos Gonzalez singled in front of the right fielder to score Fowler. When Jason Giambi singled to right, Winn bobbled the ball, allowing Gonzalez to score from first. Miguel Olivo singled to keep the inning going, and Smith ended it with his third hit of the night.
"You go from, 'Let's not give any at-bats away' and 'Good try' to, 'Oh, wait, we can do this,'" Smith said.
A seemingly minor sequence of moves before the ninth set the stage for the meltdown. With a four-run lead in the sixth, La Russa double-switched Kyle McClellan into the game, expecting to get four or more outs from the right-hander. But the sixth was tricky for McClellan, who allowed a double and a walk. Instead of leaving him in, La Russa pulled him in favor of Trever Miller to open the seventh. Miller didn't retire either of the two batters he faced, forcing the manager to call on Jason Motte. Reyes pitched the eighth and started the ninth.
Had the Cards not used Motte, he would have been available to come on for Franklin as the ninth slipped away. As it was, none of the available relievers -- Mitchell Boggs, Fernando Salas and possibly Adam Ottavino -- fit the bill for the manager as someone to bring in for his closer.
Moreover, the other half of the switch brought in Winn for Jon Jay, himself a sub for Nick Stavinoha. Winn's positioning -- admittedly, likely not his decision -- surely contributed to Gonzalez's single dropping in, because he was nearly at the warning track. And his error on Giambi's single allowed Gonzalez to score all the way from first.
Still, as La Russa himself said, a Major League team must be able to close out a game like this one.
"There's no way you can not get three outs with a six-run lead," La Russa said. "It's just one of those games. There's no way to explain it, no excuses you make. It's a very difficult loss. We haven't lost too many times we've been ahead in the ninth. It's just brutal."
Rockies starter Jeff Francis breezed through the first 2 2/3 innings before Aaron Miles slapped a two-out single in the third. Felipe Lopez followed with a two-run homer, and the Cardinals had the lead. Matt Holliday added a three-run homer, his first long ball as a visitor in Denver.
Blake Hawksworth, making his fourth start of the season, was often in trouble but consistently managed to escape. He stranded the bases loaded in the second, got around a pair of two-out singles in the fourth and worked around singles by the first two hitters during the fifth. Despite sometimes shaky defense behind him, he made it through five innings with only two runs allowed.
"They have that reputation," Hawksworth said. "They don't give in as an offense. They're the kind of club, you keep them around, they have a chance of hurting you."
St. Louis remained two games behind Cincinnati in the National League Central, missing out on a tremendous opportunity to gain ground on the division leaders.
"We played our butts off for nine innings, and then I come in and didn't get the last out," Franklin said. "I just didn't get it done. I feel bad for everybody in here who fought so hard for three hours."