PITTSBURGH -- It could be argued that the St. Louis Cardinals have the Pittsburgh Pirates right where they want them.
This is not the first position that springs to mind when a team is trailing, 2-1, in the best-of-five National League Division Series. But it is applicable for the Cardinals, who have a track record of staging comebacks that might be seen, on the part of other teams, as wildly improbable.
Certainly, the Cards would have preferred to have taken the first three games of this series from the Bucs. This would have left the Cardinals taking a brief break now before opening at home on Friday night against either the Braves or the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.
But this is not at all the situation the Redbirds find themselves in following a 5-3 loss at PNC Park on Sunday. There's disappointment in this outcome, but there was no shame. The Pirates' pitching is good enough to win anything and everything this autumn. The Cardinals came from behind twice to tie Sunday's game -- first in the fifth and then in the eighth -- but a third comeback was beyond their reach against Pittsburgh closer Jason Grilli.
The comeback has been a specialty of recent St. Louis teams. The 2011 club was widely written off when it was behind by double digits in the NL Wild Card race in late August. Not only did those Cardinals win the Wild Card, they won the World Series -- but only after being down to their last strike twice in Game 6 against the Rangers.
The 2012 Cards were down, 6-0, to the Nationals after three innings of the deciding Game 5 of that NLDS. They were still down, 7-5, after eight innings. But they rallied to win, 9-7, and eventually came within one victory of reaching the World Series.
So being behind doesn't exactly buckle their knees in terror.
"We've been in this situation before," said Carlos Beltran. "Last year, we were in this situation a lot. So I think we're fine."
You might feel better about the Cardinals being fine if Beltran had a little more help on the offensive side. He knocked in all three St. Louis runs Sunday -- a fifth-inning two-run single and an eighth-inning homer, both of the game-tying variety. The best offensive day from any Cards player not named Beltran was by shortstop Pete Kozma, who had two hits, including a hustle double.
"We'll come back [Monday] just like any other time that we lost, and we'll keep fighting," said David Freese. "I think we just turn the page. [The Pirates] want to celebrate [Monday]. We want to take the ballgame back to Busch Stadium."
This was a deeply disappointing loss for the Cardinals, but it was not a bad game. Less-than-stellar performances by rookie relievers who have often been superb finally made a difference.
Starter Joe Kelly pitched well enough to win for St. Louis. He was not intimidated, cowed or otherwise unhinged by 40,489 fans at PNC Park attempting to taunt him by chanting his last name in a singsong fashion. The local belief was that this tactic had caused Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto to unravel in the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday. Maybe, maybe not. Kelly was not transformed into a victim.
Francisco Liriano, Pittsburgh's Game 3 starter, had been 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA against St. Louis this year. When the Cards scored two runs against him in the fifth, they broke a 13-inning scoreless streak against Liriano. Those two runs matched the amount of runs they had scored against him in the last 28 2/3 innings.
What the Cardinals will have going for them in Game 4 (starting at 3 p.m. ET Monday on TBS) of this NLDS will obviously include the young but extremely talented starter Michael Wacha. His last work was pitching a no-hitter for 8 2/3 innings. Wacha is only 22, but he has already made an impression with not only his ability, but his maturity.
"I think his confidence gives us confidence," Freese said.
Sunday's loss put the Cards at the doorstep of elimination. But it could also be read as another game in which they demonstrated considerable mettle.
"[It was] another game where they showed a lot of fight," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "Just don't think they ever count themselves out, regardless what happens. It was another game where they showed a lot of heart. We just ended up being a little bit short."
The Cardinals don't have any more room for a little bit short, a nice try, a near miss or a moral victory. It is time now for their best come-from-behind work.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.