After twice tying the game in the eighth and ninth innings, the Cardinals fell to the Brewers, 9-7, in 10 innings at Busch Stadium. The loss was the Cardinals' third in a row and their eighth in the past 10 games.
St. Louis enters Wednesday's playoff opener having won just one of seven games since clinching the NL Central title last Saturday in Colorado, but also know that it needs the same number of wins as the other seven playoff teams vying for the ultimate prize.
"Everyone wanted to win some games down the stretch, but what's exciting is that everything is starting from a clean slate," said outfielder Ryan Ludwick. "All of that hard work that we put in during the offseason and Spring Training, we've reached our goal. We are in the postseason and I am super excited. It's go time. It's what everybody has played for.
"It's a new season. We've got the L.A. Dodgers [in the National League Division Series on TBS starting Wednesday in California]. It should be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it."
Albert Pujols did add to the record books in this game in the fifth with his 185th assist of the season, passing Bill Buckner's record for the most by a first baseman in a single campaign.
NLDS Game 3 starter Joel Pineiro gave up three earned runs in five innings in his final tuneup for the playoffs but wasn't able to help end the Cardinals' recent slide. Jason Kendall hit a two-run double off the righty in the second before Prince Fielder launched the first of two long home runs to put the Brewers up 4-1 in the fifth.
After giving up four or more earned runs just five times in the first five months of the season, Pineiro gave up at least that many in four of his seven September starts. But echoing the comments of several of his teammates, Pineiro was closing the door on the regular season and is ready for a fresh start.
"We're not the only team that has struggled," Pineiro said. "The first one to 11 is going to win. We've got all of the pieces in place. Everyone is healthy, which is the big key. Everyone just has to do the little things to go out there and get those 11 wins.
"Maybe that was the best part, getting everything out of the way now. I don't know. I didn't change anything from April to September and I'm not going to change anything now."
Skip Schumaker singled and scored in the first to put the Cardinals up, 1-0. Schumaker then singled in the third to assure his third straight season in the Major Leagues with a batting average above .300. Brendan Ryan needed a three-hit day to reach .300 himself, but he went 0-for-5 before being lifted in the ninth.
St. Louis fell behind, 6-1, in the seventh inning but rallied to tie the game in the eighth inning. The Redbirds cut into the deficit in the seventh, scoring three times to make it 6-4. Rookie David Freese then tied the game in the eighth with a two-run bloop single to right after Matt Pagnozzi put runners at second and third with a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt.
Fielder then launched his second homer of the game, a solo shot to right, to put the Brewers back in front, 7-6, and the game looked all but over with Trevor Hoffman coming in for the save.
But Hoffman walked three straight batters to load the bases with one out before a fielder's-choice grounder by Julio Lugo tied the game again.
The Cardinals had been playing with fire all afternoon, and it finally caught up with them in the 10th, when the Brewers put two runs across the board to head into their offseason with a three-game sweep over the division rivals.
But while Milwaukee heads home for the offseason, St. Louis will head to Los Angeles to begin its quest for the franchise's 11th World Series championship.
"It's a fresh start," said shortstop Brendan Ryan. "The way we ended the season and Game 1 [of the NLDS] are two completely separate things. We're excited that we get a fresh start and excited for the postseason. We can't wait. We're just glad to get the regular season over with. We're getting pretty excited.
"The last few years, it seems like if you get hot and stay hot, you can do it. Everyone else has been scuffling too, it looks like, so we're not making too much about it. It's no big deal."
Concerned Cardinals fans should take comfort in knowing that the September tumble closely resembles that of the 2006 team that went on to win the World Series. St. Louis went 3-9 to close out the 2006 regular season before catching fire in the playoffs and winning its 10th World Series title.
The Redbirds will hold an optional workout on Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium before flying to Los Angeles on Monday evening. After a workout at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, the Cards will turn the page on the disappointing finish and send ace Chris Carpenter to the mound in Game 1 against the Dodgers.
Thankfully for them, the score and series will be 0-0.
"They've done what they needed to do to get to the postseason and we've done what we needed to do," Ludwick said. "It's a fresh start for both teams. Everything starts at zero. Wins, losses, ERA, batting average, home runs, RBIs, errors -- everything is flat-lined right now. It's a new start.
"The lights turn on. It's the playoffs. The adrenaline is going to be flowing. Everyone is excited and ready to play. It should be a lot of fun."
B.J. Rains is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.