ST. LOUIS -- For eight innings on Sunday, it looked as though one run would be enough for the Cardinals to take care of the Braves. Adam Wainwright delivered a vintage performance, and although the offense couldn’t do much against Braves starter Mike Soroka, they had scraped together a run, and they were three outs away from a victory.
Now they are one game away from postseason elimination.
Closer Carlos Martínez allowed three runs in the ninth inning, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 loss in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals face a 2-1 series deficit with Game 4 set for Monday -- a game they must win to force Game 5 in Atlanta.
It was so close to being a different story.
Martínez allowed a leadoff double to Josh Donaldson, and after pinch-runner Billy Hamilton stole third, Martínez struck out Nick Markakis and Adeiny Hechavarria swinging.
With two outs, manager Mike Shildt walked to the mound to talk with Martínez and the defense. They decided to issue an intentional walk to the left-handed-hitting Brian McCann and have Martínez face Dansby Swanson, who was 0-for-6 against Martínez entering Sunday.
Swanson smoked Martínez’s slider for a double to the left-field wall and tied the score.
“Went out, consensus was that [we’d] rather take a shot at Swanson, 0-for-6 at that point with Carlos, but clearly that's the go-ahead run you're putting on,” Shildt said. “But you have two outs, and we play to win. Gotta play to win the game. Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound. Took our shot. Didn't make a pitch, and [Swanson] made him pay.”
Added Martínez: “The situation called for that walk. McCann is a more veteran player than Dansby. He was looking for that pitch, and he got it.”
Adam Duvall’s two-run single in the next at-bat gave the Braves the lead. Even though Giovanny Gallegos -- who has been the Cardinals’ go-to reliever in high-leverage spots before the ninth inning -- was warming up, Shildt kept Martínez in. Martínez walked Ronald Acuña Jr. before getting Ozzie Albies to fly out to right field, ending the frame.
Shildt said that aside from the pitches to Donaldson and Swanson, Martínez had command of the inning after the strikeouts of Markakis and Hechavarria. The Cardinals were “comfortable and confident” enough in Martínez not to take him out after Swanson tied the score.
“You’ve got your closer out there,” Shildt said. “And I feel like if you start pulling guys that have been doing their jobs prematurely, then I think that's a sign of panic and lack of trust. Like I said, it would be hard to go out there and grab the ball from a guy in a tie game that's virtually been lights-out all year.
“I get there's not a lot of margin for error, but it's not like this guy's out there throwing it all over the place.”
Martínez converted 24 of his 27 save opportunities in the regular season and 22 of 23 opportunities since taking over as the closer after Jordan Hicks’ season-ending Tommy John surgery. Sunday was Martínez’s first career postseason save opportunity, and it was the Cardinals’ first postseason blown save since Game 5 of the 2014 NL Championship Series against the Giants (Pat Neshek).
“It’s just one bad game,” Martínez said. “The location wasn’t there. It’s just one bad game.”
The Cardinals will turn to rookie starter Dakota Hudson on Monday in a game they must win. In Division Series in the current 2-2-1 format, teams that take a 2-1 lead have gone on to win the series 39 of 52 times.
“We’ve been resilient,” Wainwright said. “We’ve fought back from tough games and bad stretches. We can go out and win this game tomorrow and win in Atlanta. I’ve got more champagne to taste.”
The Cardinals managed just four hits on Sunday, two of them off Soroka, who struck out seven over seven innings. St. Louis has scored one run in the last two games after scoring seven in Game 1 -- a game started by Dallas Keuchel, who is also likely to start on Monday.
Win or go home. The season comes down to one game.
“No question about it," said Shildt. "We took what we felt was our best shot to win that game, and it didn't work out.
“So there's disappointment, absolutely, because you get invested for 8 2/3 and go out and lay it out there and play the game and you get a great pitching performance from Waino. And Miller comes in, gets the big out on Freeman. You're an out away. Ground ball, punchout, fly ball away from being up 2-1, being able to close it out at home. Yeah, that doesn't feel real good, but we'll be ready to go tomorrow, I can tell you that.”