Even after a couple of seeing-eye two-run singles by Atlanta had contributed to a 5-4 deficit going to the ninth, St. Louis still had a chance for some late heroics. The Braves came in 0-20 in one-run games on the road, and it appeared it would still be a one-run contest when Cards second baseman Felipe Lopez fielded a hot smash off the bat of Martin Prado with two on and two outs.
But Lopez double-clutched as first baseman Albert Pujols, who was playing deep, headed for the bag. By the time Lopez's throw hit Pujols' mitt, a hustling Prado had beaten the play. Kelly Johnson then tenaciously battled Russ Springer for a walk to force in a run. Johnson fouled off eight straight 3-2 pitches. Jeff Francoeur capped the rally with a two-run single.
St. Louis infielder Adam Kennedy came to Lopez's defense, saying Lopez hasn't had enough time in his two weeks with the Cardinals to get comfortable throwing to Pujols before the first baseman is stationary at the bag. Throwing to Pujols on the run is a maneuver other Cards infielders repeatedly have worked on.
"It's definitely not his fault," Kennedy said of Lopez.
Lopez wanted to make sure he had a clear target before throwing to first.
"He was just playing deep, and I kind of had to wait a little bit to throw the ball," Lopez said. "Obviously I don't want to hit him in his back while he's still running to the bag. He likes to play back. I have to get used to timing it, almost."
La Russa said he didn't see exactly what happened. When the hard-hit ball was fielded, La Russa's thoughts sprang to how St. Louis could score in the ninth.
"It would have been nice to go in one run down and see if we could have rallied," the manager said. "We've got to get an out on the play."
It was that kind of slip-and-slide day for the Cardinals. Thanks to a Pujols two-run double in the third and a Pujols solo homer in the fifth, St. Louis had a 3-1 lead behind 13-game winner Kyle Lohse. But when Prado managed to sneak a two-run single under Lopez's glove in the sixth, the Braves had visions of snapping their six-game losing streak.
On Friday, the Cardinals had all sorts of bloops and bleeders go for singles. One day later, Atlanta caught some of those soft-single breaks.
The Braves got another two-run single from Greg Norton in the eighth to take the lead for good. That hit off Kyle McClellan with two outs wasn't well struck, but it found a way up the middle just under Lopez's glove.
"Those ground-ball hits are tough," McClellan said. "A couple of feet over and it's an out. I thought we had a chance, because the ball wasn't hit very hard."
The Cardinals (72-59) closed within one run on an RBI double by Lopez, but then came the defensive lapse on the right side of the infield that opened the door for three Braves insurance runs.
"It would have been a tough [one-run] save for the other side," La Russa said. "If they get it, you tip your cap. But that would have been a tough save. You can't give a club an extra out at that time in the game."
The Cardinals, who have been a resilient team all year, hope to bounce back on Sunday before taking their chances in a two-game set against National League Wild Card leader Milwaukee. The Brewers won on Saturday to move 3 1/2 games up on the Cards in the NL Wild Card race.
"Every one is important, especially when you are behind," Lohse said. "We just have to keep fighting like we have all year and see what happens."