"It wasn't very characteristic of how we played all season," manager Mike Matheny said after the Game 3 loss. "We're a better club than this."
After winning games started by Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw back at home, the Cardinals liked their chances with ace Adam Wainwright on the mound for the first of three NLCS road games. But Wainwright, who won twice in the NL Division Series, would only be as good as the defense behind him. And in front of a sellout crowd of 53,940, it cracked in a costly spot.
The Dodgers, who were stung by a passed ball in a one-run loss on Saturday, scored twice in a fourth inning that should have been relatively routine for Wainwright. The ace had faced just one over the minimum when Mark Ellis opened the frame by lifting a 2-2 curveball to right-center. Both Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran, who was shaded toward the right-field line, gave chase. Beltran expected Jay to make the play, but then watched as the center fielder inexplicably pulled back at the last second.
The ball dropped next to Jay. Ellis stood at second.
"I'm the center fielder," Jay said. "That's my ball. I have to catch the ball. I have to take charge and catch the ball."
Jay offered little other explanation for the mistake, though he noted several times that crowd noise was not a factor.
"I think he hesitated," Beltran said. "It's a play that, as a center fielder -- and I was a center fielder before -- you have to take charge. He knows that."
The mistake provided the Dodgers -- who at that point had been held scoreless for 22 straight innings -- the opening they needed. A deep fly ball by Hanley Ramirez moved Ellis to third, and Ellis jogged home when Adrian Gonzalez lined a double over a drawn-in infield. A two-out triple by Yasiel Puig -- previously 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts in the series -- padded Los Angeles' lead.
The hits by Gonzalez and Puig gave the Dodgers more hits with runners in scoring position on Monday night than they had collected in the first two games combined.
"Not sure what happened on the first ball, but as a pitcher, you just [have] to keep pitching," Wainwright said. "I didn't make a couple pitches tonight. I felt in command of pretty much everything I had, but there were a couple times where I left some pitches where they could hit it."
The Cardinals' offense never came alive to counter. Fortunate to have taken the first two games of the series on a combined four runs and nine hits, the Cards tallied just four singles off Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu and two relievers.
Two of those singles, though, came in succession to open the fifth, as the Cardinals tried to answer the Dodgers' two-run inning. Any momentum building was squashed when Daniel Descalso -- who had just entered as a pinch-runner after David Freese exited with right calf tightness -- was doubled off second base on a routine flyout to left by Jay.
"That was big," Ellis said. "You don't want to give them any momentum at all. We got a break. A smart baseball player made a mistake, and I don't think he'll do that again."
Descalso would be the last Cards baserunner to reach scoring position all night.
"We made a few mistakes we don't normally make, and when you do that, you're going to lose," Descalso said. "They had momentum there, scored two runs in that inning. Runs have been hard to come by in this series, and they got the momentum, got the crowd behind them, and we couldn't answer."
The offense, which continues to miss Allen Craig and may now be without Freese, has not yet found its footing this postseason. Since scoring seven runs in the third inning of their first postseason game, the Cardinals have mustered 18 runs in 70 innings. They've scored more than three runs in just two of eight playoff games.
The Cards' postseason batting average has sunk to .180, the lowest in postseason history among teams that played seven or more games. And this is from a team that led the league in runs scored during the regular season.
"We have to find a way," Beltran said. "Right now, we're getting good pitching from us, from them. I think this series is about pitching. The guys that pitch the best, those are the teams that are going to move up. We've seen that. It's going to continue. We need to find a way to have better at-bats and probably score a few runs."
Ryu had a bounce-back performance after lasting only three innings in his NLDS start against Atlanta. With 108 pitches, the lefty finished seven shutout innings against a St. Louis team that, including the postseason, is now 20-25 in games started by left-handers this season.
Jay's mental gaffe and the offense's ineptitude cost the Cards an opportunity to capitalize upon another strong start by Wainwright. He scattered six hits over seven innings and kept the deficit at two by pitching himself out of more trouble after allowing a leadoff triple to start the fifth.
"We know he's an incredible pitcher, steps up in big games," Gonzalez said. "He threw a great, great game today. We were able to get some balls to fall in and take advantage of those jam shots and things like that. But it was definitely our mentality to have to come out and beat him."
The bullpen took over in the eighth only because the Cardinals had to lift Wainwright for a pinch-hitter in an attempt to jump-start the offense. Those late substitutions included shuffling around the infielders, and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong was immediately exposed when Carl Crawford sprinted home from second on a bloop hit over Wong's head. When he retrieved the ball, Wong never looked at Crawford.
The series of three singles came off relievers Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness, ending a string of 11 2/3 scoreless innings by the bullpen this postseason.
"It was just one of those nights," Matt Carpenter said. "Things just weren't falling our way. We had some things not go our way, some plays that we usually make that we didn't make. In the postseason, those are things that can beat you. It wasn't our night, but the good news is we're still ahead in the series."