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Opportunity knocks, but no answer from Cards

Opportunity knocks, but no answer from Cards

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Opportunity knocks, but no answer from Cards
ST. LOUIS -- Excuse the pun, but it felt like a Brewers win in Game 4 of this National League Championship Series was sort of, shall you say, "in the cards." If this season has taught us anything, it's that the Brewers and Cardinals are about as tight and evenly matched as two teams can get. Regular season and postseason combined, the two teams have now split their 22 games, and the score between them sits at 90-88 (in favor of Milwaukee).

All that aside, though, you kind of get the feeling the Cards let one slip away here.

They had it all laid out for them. They were at home, they finally had some sort of advantage in their wild and twisted season, they were facing a man fresh off surrendering seven runs in a three-inning start and -- most glaringly -- they had plenty of chances to increase their lead early on.

That last part sound familiar? Then you're probably thinking about Game 3, when the Cardinals scored four runs in the first inning, got nothing after that and still hung on, because their bullpen was just that dominant.

But failing to take advantage of run-scoring chances will always come back to bite you against good teams. On Thursday night, it kept the Cards from taking a vice grip in this series, led to a 4-2 loss and ensured that they'd have to win at least one game -- maybe two -- in baseball's most difficult venue in order to advance.

"You can look at it like that, but it's part of the game," slugger Albert Pujols, who finished 1-for-4, said of missing chances with men on base. "Do you want to miss those opportunities? No, but I think the Brewers have, too. It goes both ways. Sometimes this game is so good like that, it keeps you humble. Sometimes you get some huge hits with two outs. But I think the main thing is to keep fighting and continue to have good, quality at-bats and see what happens after the game."

During the regular season, not a single team was better with runners in scoring position than the Cardinals. They hit .290 with an .832 OPS -- best in MLB.

Now it's that department which could ultimately lead to their demise.

In the last two games of this series, the Cards have left a small village on the basepaths. They stranded seven men on base and went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position after Wednesday's four-run first inning, then went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on in Thursday's loss.

If you're scoring at home, that's 0-for-15 with runners in scoring position in the Cardinals' last 16 innings.

Facing Randy Wolf, the soft-tossing lefty coming off a rocky start against a subpar D-backs offense, St. Louis came out hot with a second-inning homer by Matt Holliday (who was moved down to the No. 5 spot after recent struggles) and a third-inning homer by Allen Craig (who surprisingly subbed in for Lance Berkman).

But the opportunities to add on were there.

First and third, one out in the second inning after Holliday's homer? Nothing.

First and second, two outs in the third after Craig's homer? Nothing.

The Brewers would eventually take the lead on a fifth-inning RBI single by Ryan Braun, and the Cardinals were left kicking themselves for not capitalizing while having Wolf on the ropes early on.

"We jumped on him earlier, and he kind of went away from his changeup and started throwing the curveball a lot," Craig said. "That made it tough on us, and we just didn't adjust. He's tough. We did our best, and it just didn't happen for us tonight."

After Milwaukee made it a two-run game on a critical Ryan Theriot error, St. Louis couldn't capitalize on its biggest chance -- man on second, nobody out, zero runs.

Holliday opened up the sixth against a tiring Wolf with a double.

Yadier Molina: lineout, advancing Holliday to third base.

Theriot, who basically only needed to make contact to make this a one-run game: strikeout chasing a high fastball.

Jon Jay: lazy flyout.

Inning over.

"You have to get those guys in when you have the chance to do it," Theriot said. "I wasn't able to do it tonight."

Nobody was. And because of that, the team that has played six weeks' worth of must-win games faces its biggest one yet.

The Cardinals have been the team that simply won't back down. But even they must know the odds to take the NL pennant will not be in their favor if they have to win back-to-back elimination games at Miller Park -- a place the Brewers won 57 of 81 games during the regular season.

Excuse the cliché, but Friday night at Busch Stadium is about as "must-win" as you can get for the Cards.

It might be a good time to start hitting with men on base.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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