ST. LOUIS -- Now the real series begins. The Padres and Cardinals are down to two games to decide which team goes on to the National League Championship Series. If the Cards win Game 4 on their Busch Stadium turf on Sunday, they'll move on for the fifth time in seven postseasons. If the Padres win, it'll come down to a winner-take-all matchup at PETCO Park on Monday. "It's a game we hoped not to have to play, but you try to wrap it up as soon as you can," said Cards manager Tony La Russa, who's sending out Game 1 winner Chris Carpenter against old friend Woody Williams. "They've got to win. They're a tough club. All the games have been there for both of us. So I think it's a very even series and we'll give it another chance."
The fourth inning has been the most potent one in the first three games of the series. And in Game 3 on Saturday, the Padres scored three times in the top of the fourth and held on for a 3-1 win, their first in the postseason since they defeated the Braves in Atlanta in Game 6 of the NLCS on Oct. 14, 1998. The Cardinals still lead the best-of-five series, 2-1. Eight of the 12 runs in the series have been scored in the top of the fourth, with the Cardinals having scored five times in that inning during the first two games in San Diego. "We're in a must-win situation," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "And I liked the way the guys hit the field. It does give you a little sense of relief. You finally win a game against these guys in the playoffs. We played them tough during the season, but they've had their way in the playoffs." The Cardinals have lost a clinching game the last three times it's been played on their own turf. Previous to Saturday, the Red Sox won Game 4 of the 2004 World Series, and the Astros took last year's Game 6 of the NLCS. Both of those games were played at the old circular, white Busch Stadium, which was demolished next door to the new red-bricked edifice. The Cardinals are now 19-5 in first-round games since the three-tiered playoff format was instituted for good in 1995, losing only one of their previous six NLDS -- in 2001 to the eventual World Series champion Diamondbacks. Since then, St. Louis has won 11 of its last 13 NLDS games, the other loss coming in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium two years ago.
On Saturday, the Padres snapped a losing streak of eight consecutive NLDS games to the Cardinals since 1996.The Padres had only led twice in those eight straight losses, and when they jumped out to the lead on Saturday, it was the first time they'd done so since the final game of the 1996 series. "This is just a start," said Trevor Hoffman, the Padres closer who shut down the Redbirds in the ninth inning Saturday to record his first postseason save since 1998. "We know it's going to be tough and there's still a lot more work to do." Four of the previous 22 NLDS have gone five games, the last one Houston's win over Atlanta in 2004. It's a prospect the Cardinals would rather not face and one the Padres would relish. "We're a free and easy ballclub and we know that it's a 'win or go home' situation right now," Padres infielder Geoff Blum said. "The pressure is on them to close it out, so we just go out, play our game, have some good at-bats and we'll be all right. As long as we know we're playing as hard as we can, we'll be happy with that."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.