LOS ANGELES -- Manager Mike Matheny has made a season-long effort to ensure his club does not get too high with the wins or too low with the losses. Such emotion would be draining over the course of a 162-game season.
Only, Saturday's 4-3 defeat to the Dodgers felt different. And it is bound to test the Cardinals' resolve more so than any other loss the defending World Series champions have endured this season.
Twice one strike away from extending their Wild Card lead to two games, the Cardinals endured a crushing pushback by the Dodgers. Los Angeles stung closer Jason Motte with three straight hits, the last one sending the 42,449 at Dodger Stadium into celebration over the team's fifth walk-off win.
"Our guys did a heck of a job," Motte said. "And I didn't do my job tonight."
As a result, the Cardinals and Dodgers, each with 16 games remaining, sit tied for the National League's final playoff berth.
Daniel Descalso went so far as to call Sunday's series finale a "must-win" game, though that's technically not the case. "Tonight is a tough one," Descalso added.
Inches -- and even one call -- tilted the ninth inning for Los Angeles, which had been held to three hits by starter Jaime Garcia and relievers Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs. Motte appeared to be following in line. He retired the first two batters he faced and raced ahead of Andre Ethier, 0-2.
But Ethier stayed alive by turning on an inside cutter and dropping it in right field. Dee Gordon entered to run and promptly stole second. While the Cardinals didn't put up much of a fuss at the time, replays showed that Descalso appeared to make the tag before Gordon touched.
"I couldn't tell," Matheny said, when asked of his read. "I didn't get much from my second baseman telling me that I got him."
Luis Cruz, who lifted the Dodgers to a win a night earlier, worked the count full before sending a fastball to center. Jon Jay gave chase. His diving attempt fell short. Cruz's RBI evened the score at 3.
"I was right there," Jay said afterward. "I just missed it."
Matheny, intent on sticking with his closer, nonetheless took a visit. His message? "Basically to slow down and get back to making pitches," he said.
Motte would make only three more.
On the third, pinch-hitter Juan Rivera lined the ball over Descalso, who had it nick off his glove on a leap. Descalso recovered to make a throw to the plate, but not in time.
"I tried to go back to make a play on it and get it," Descalso said. "I just wasn't able to bring it down."
The Cardinals, 70-5 when leading after eight innings, can now do no better than a series split during their final regular-season stop in Los Angeles. They have also lost the season series, meaning that a potential tie for the second Wild Card would send the Cardinals back to California to play that play-in game.
The way in which this one ended overshadowed what seemed sure to be the story line coming into the night. That, of course, was whether Garcia would be able to solve his road woes.
There was strong consideration given to skipping Garcia so he wouldn't have to pitch on the road, where he's posted a 6.19 ERA this year. It was eventually decided that Garcia would stick on turn, and the left-hander rewarded the organization with a six-inning quality start.
Garcia's biggest bind came in the first, an inning extended by one of two errors Descalso made at short. Shane Victorino reached on the miscue, swiped second and scored on Adrian Gonzalez's two-out single. Hanley Ramirez followed with a double, putting Garcia in a precarious spot with two runners in scoring position.
Garcia quelled the threat with a groundout and settled from there. He allowed only one other hit -- a tying homer to Mark Ellis in the third -- in six innings. He issued a walk immediately after, but then retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced. The only hitter to reach did so via an error.
"I felt pretty good out there," said Garcia, unwilling to expound much on the specifics of his bounceback. "Obviously, it was a disappointing loss in a really big game for us."
While Garcia provided a refreshing rebound, Allen Craig supplied all the offense.
Craig extended his hitting streak to nine with a two-run home run off Dodgers starter Joe Blanton in the first. After Matt Holliday beat out a potential-inning ending double play throw in the sixth, Craig drove home the Cards' third run with a two-strike single.
The hit improved Craig's average with runners in scoring position to .393, a league best. The three RBIs gave Craig 80 for the season. He's reached the total in only 104 games.
The Cardinals had a limited number of other baserunners the rest of the night, and Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp kept another from reaching with a perfect throw to get Yadier Molina as he tried for a triple to lead off the eighth.
"He hit the ball hard and it kept carrying," Kemp said. "I just picked it up and tried to make a good throw and it worked."
It was the first of several tight plays to go against St. Louis late.
"It's a cliche, but it's really just a game of inches," Craig said. "Jay almost caught that ball, and Daniel almost caught that ball. It was a close play at second on the steal, and it was a close play at home. It was one of those deals that happens and it stings, but you have to be positive and come back tomorrow. We're still in a good spot."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.