Then, in the bottom of the fifth, Aaron Miles got a bunt single, and five hits and five runs later, Busch Stadium was rocking and pennant fever was back.
Eventually, the Cards outlasted the Braves, 5-4, in the second game of a three-game series and are now three games back of the first-place Cubs and just 1 1/2 games behind second-place Brewers.
It was just the second time in 97 games that Hudson couldn't get the win when given at least a three-run lead.
"I don't see that happening very often," Jim Edmonds said. "We're very fortunate to get out of here with a win tonight. But it doesn't matter how you get it done, as long as you leave with the win."
After Miles started the rally with the bunt single, David Eckstein followed with a single to right field to move Miles over to second. Rick Ankiel, Albert Pujols and Edmonds then put together back-to-back-to-back RBI singles to tie the game at 3.
Two hitters later, Scott Rolen came through with a one-out double to right field to score Pujols and give the Cards their first lead of the game. They tacked on one more, which proved to be the game-winning run, when So Taguchi lifted a sacrifice fly to right field and capped the five-run fifth.
"Hitting is contagious," Miles said. "When one guy gets one, you want to match that. I don't know if [Hudson] got tired a little bit or what, but we were able to put together the big inning at the right time."
The rally got starter Joel Pineiro off the hook for the loss. Pineiro's pitching line -- four innings, three runs on seven hits and a taxing 88 pitches -- doesn't look that impressive, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
The right-hander allowed one run in the second, third and fourth, but each time had the Braves strand at least one runner. Pineiro's best escape job came in the fourth. He gave up a single to Andruw Jones and a double to Yunel Escobar to put runners on second and third for Hudson. Hudson came through with his second RBI single of the game and put runners on the corners with nobody out.
Pineiro then settled down and got Willie Harris to pop out, and struck out Kelly Johnson for the second out of the inning. Then Pineiro might have turned in the play of the game. Chipper Jones lined a fastball right back to the pitcher, and he stuck his glove out and snared it to end the Braves' threat.
"I think it's the key to the game," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "That was huge. If they get a crooked number there once or twice, the way Hudson is throwing, I don't think we can catch him."
The Cards are now 4-1 in games that Pineiro starts, and haven't lost games he started since falling in his Cardinals debut on Aug. 4.
"I made the key pitches when I needed to," Pineiro said. "If it wasn't for Hudson, I would have been OK. I left some pitches up. I have to get used to National League style, but I just made some mistakes."
After Pineiro exited, the Cards' bullpen secured the win in an impressive manner. The bullpen pitched the final five innings, allowing just one run, while striking out five and walking just one.
Jason Isringhausen finally put an end to it in the ninth, but in an exciting way. Jeff Francoeur reached on an error by Rolen to put runners on second and third with two outs for Andruw Jones. Jones entered the at-bat 0-for-5 with three strikeouts against Isringhausen, and struck out swinging to end the game and give the Redbirds a critical win.
"[The bullpen] is the biggest reason we are still in this thing," Miles said. "They were great again tonight. I don't know the stats, but they have to be one of the top bullpens in all of baseball."
If the Cards are able to win the series finale on Sunday, it will secure a winning homestand and keep them in the thick of the NL Central race.
"Everybody has to contribute for us to make a run at this," Edmonds said. "We've always been confident. We have a good group of guys that can play, we just haven't been playing well. But we'll see in about 35 days how this thing turns out."