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Cards trail in NLCS after loss

Cards unable to keep up with Astros

HOUSTON -- Forty-four games against the Astros over a two-year span have revealed certain truths to the Cardinals.

One is that if St. Louis makes mistakes, Houston is likely to seize the opportunity it's been given. Also axiomatic by now is that if the Astros get a late lead, the Cardinals are going to have a tough time catching up. And on top of all that, there's this: When Matt Morris faces Mike Lamb, bad things are likely to happen for Morris and the Cardinals.

Lamb and the Astros did St. Louis in again on Saturday afternoon as Houston beat the Redbirds, 4-3, in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. The defeat left St. Louis in a 2-1 hole in the best-of-seven series.

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The Cards had come back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game in the top of the sixth, but the contest got away from them in a 14-pitch sequence in the bottom of the same inning. Three two-strike hits, an injury and a costly error added up to a disheartening stretch and ultimately led to defeat.

"That's the difference in the game," said manager Tony La Russa. "We fell behind by two and then we battled back, did a real good job of scoring the two, and then we had a chance for more. We got the two to tie it and we got a lot of momentum going."

For the second consecutive game, not only did the Cardinals lose, but a St. Louis player went down to injury. This time it was Abraham Nunez, who sustained a left quadriceps contusion when Jason Lane slid into him at third base in the sixth, part of that same series of unfortunate events.

After Morris induced a flyout from Morgan Ensberg to start the sixth, Lamb doubled to center field on a 1-2 pitch. Lane dropped a single into right with the count 0-2, scoring Lamb and giving the Astros a 3-2 lead after the Cards had scratched out single runs in the fifth and sixth to tie the game.

Then it got tougher.

Brad Ausmus singled to right on a 2-2 pitch, and as Lane went from first to third, Larry Walker unleashed a throw to Nunez at third base. Nunez had to charge the throw, and as he moved up the baseline towards second, Lane slid into him. Lane's knee hit Nunez just above the left knee, knocking Nunez out of the game.

"The thing about that is, I don't want the ball to hit him," said Nunez. "If the throw wasn't going to beat him, I didn't want to allow the ball to ricochet off him and get away and score a run. I was trying to prevent that."

Nunez came out of the game, replaced by Hector Luna, and immediately he was missed. The next batter, Adam Everett, hit a grounder to third base against reliever Brad Thompson. When Luna tried to throw Lane out at home, his throw sailed far out of Yadier Molina's reach, allowing Lane to score the fourth run.

"It's a tough play," said Molina. "I was inside the line and he was outside."

Luna explained that he was trying to make sure that his throw didn't hit Lane. He said the ball did not slip out of his hand -- he simply didn't make a good throw. It turned out to be a vital run, as the Cardinals eventually closed within a run when John Mabry doubled home John Rodriguez in the ninth.

That last run may have been the most encouraging event of the afternoon for the Cardinals. They had not scored off Houston closer Brad Lidge since May 29, 2003, when Lidge was a middle reliever bridging the gap to Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner. Scoring two runs off Hall of Fame-bound Roger Clemens was nice, but getting one off Lidge was a big deal.

"It's nice to show that we can score a run off him, but it would have been better to tie," said David Eckstein. "It's definitely something that we've just got to keep battling. If we do our job, we can eliminate him so he doesn't have to come in the game."

Already playing without Reggie Sanders, the Cardinals played small ball to erase their first deficit.

Molina singled through the hole on the left side in the fifth, and Nunez singled off the glove of Lance Berkman at first base. After Morris bunted the runners over, Eckstein's sacrifice fly made it 2-1. So Taguchi hit a deep drive all the way to the wall, but Lane reeled it in for the third out.

It was more of the same in the sixth. Albert Pujols singled up the middle, and chugged all the way to third on Jim Edmonds' single to shallow center. That put him in position to score one batter later, when Walker lifted a sacrifice fly to center, tying the game.

But Houston took the lead again in the bottom of the same inning, making Clemens the winning pitcher after six effective innings.

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

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