The Cardinals' magic number will remain at one for another day, as St. Louis fell to the Rockies, 2-1, at Coors Field on Friday. Two hours later, the Cubs beat the Giants in San Francisco, keeping the National League Central race alive until Saturday.
St. Louis had its first chance to clinch on Wednesday night, when it fell to the Astros after a Cubs loss dropped the number to one. Chicago then won on Thursday night, followed by Friday night's two games. The Redbirds' division lead has fallen to 8 1/2 games with nine days remaining in the regular season.
Following the loss, Cardinals players remained in the Coors Field clubhouse to watch the Cubs game. If Chicago had lost, the Redbirds would have held their championship-clinching champagne celebration. Instead, they waited in vain and went back to the hotel to try again on Saturday.
"I'm disappointed, but I have no regrets," manager Tony La Russa said of the taut contest. "It was a heck of a game. Either side could have won. They won, and it was exciting. It's fun to be a part of something like that, but yeah, it's disappointing to get beat."
The game ended when Yorvit Torrealba hit a sacrifice fly against Kyle McClellan with one out in the ninth inning, sending a packed Coors Field crowd of 48,847 into bedlam. Todd Helton led off the ninth with a walk against Trever Miller, and McClellan got Troy Tulowitzki to ground into a forceout. The Cards might have had a chance at turning a double play, but Brendan Ryan didn't field the ball cleanly, so they only got one out.
Jason Giambi followed with a single against McClellan, and Torrealba delivered the game-ender on a fly ball to right field.
"In the bullpen, a lot of times you're in those spots," McClellan said. "I've just got to do a better job there of making a better 0-2 pitch."
Starter Chris Carpenter was excellent, if not dominating, holding Colorado to a single run over seven innings. Carpenter allowed five hits and three walks, striking out two. The only run against him came in the first inning, when Carlos Gonzalez led off with a bloop double and came home on a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly.
"I jammed him, but it happens in the game," Carpenter said. "There are a lot of jam balls throughout the year that fall. That's part of the game. They bunt him over and Helton brings him in. It's good fundamental baseball. That's how you win close games like this ... you score runs like that."
From there, the St. Louis ace settled in, not allowing another run. Miller pitched a perfect eighth before walking Helton, and the Rockies rallied from there against McClellan.
Aaron Cook shut the Cardinals out over five innings in his return from the disabled list. Ryan Ludwick provided the visitors' only run with a solo homer against Jose Contreras in the seventh.
Unlike Colorado, the Cardinals couldn't convert on the few chances they got, most notably in the third and eighth innings. Both times, with two men on, Matt Holliday ended the inning. In the third, Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart made an impressive diving stop on a hard-hit ball and made a strong throw to get Holliday at first. In the eighth, Holliday bounced into a double play with runners on first and second.
"I know when I'm myself and I'm on, I'm usually pretty efficient with my sinker," Cook said. "I pretty much stuck with that the whole time. Stewart diving down the line, coming up and throwing Holliday out -- that's probably the play of the game."
The Cardinals' next chance to clinch the division comes before they take the field again. Chicago plays in San Francisco at 3:10 p.m. CT on Saturday, four hours before the Redbirds and Rockies start their game.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.