HOUSTON - The St. Louis Cardinals have done just about everything right in September to make their charge at Atlanta in the NL wild-card race. They wasted an opportunity to finally draw even by losing exactly the kind of game they've been winning lately.
Brian Bogusevic scored on Angel Sanchez's bunt in the 10th inning, giving the Astros a 5-4 victory over the Cardinals on Monday night.
St. Louis had won 15 of 20 to close the gap on the Braves, who have dropped 16 of 25 games in September following Monday's loss to Philadelphia. But the Cardinals squandered several scoring chances in Houston, uncharacteristic during their surge. St. Louis has seven one-run victories this month.
"If you've watched us over the last two weeks, everything's been perfect," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "We've had some really hard games that most of the time, we win. We've only had a couple get away."
"I kept liking the way we went after it and created situations," he said. "You just tip your cap when they made pitches and got us out."
Former Astros star Lance Berkman hit a tying two-run double off Wesley Wright in the eighth, capping a Cardinals rally from three runs down.
But Bogusevic doubled off Octavio Dotel (3-3) in the 10th and advanced on Jason Bourgeois' bunt. Sanchez then dropped a bunt in front of the plate, and Bogusevic charged home as Dotel mishandled his attempt to flip the ball to catcher Yadier Molina with his glove.
"This is baseball," Molina said. "Sometimes, you're going to do the job. Today, it was bad that we didn't do the job."
Closer Mark Melancon (8-4) pitched two scoreless innings and Matt Downs hit a two-run homer for the last-place Astros, who drew motivation from playing the spoiler role.
"To have the game be meaningful is fun for us," Bogusevic said. "We have to play for something, and we're not just going to play it out and let the season end without trying hard. You owe it to the game in general to play hard."
Houston led 2-1 in the fourth when Jaime Garcia walked Carlos Lee. Downs then drove a 1-0 pitch into the left-field porch for his 10th home run of the season.
Houston starter Wandy Rodriguez pitched out of a no-out, bases-loaded jam in the fifth, getting David Freese to roll into a double play before fanning Albert Pujols.
The Astros escaped more trouble in the seventh. Ryan Theriot and Jon Jay led off with singles, and Nick Punto moved up the runners with a sacrifice.
Astros manager Brad Mills brought in Wilton Lopez to relieve Rodriguez, who threw 102 pitches. Lopez then retired pinch-hitters Allen Craig and Daniel Descalso on groundouts.
The Cardinals stranded nine runners in the game.
"We had a good chance to win that game," Molina said, "and we didn't execute."
Pujols singled and Holliday walked leading off the eighth against Fernando Rodriguez. Mills brought in the left-handed Wright to force the switch-hitting Berkman to bat right-handed. Holliday and Pujols pulled off a double steal, and Berkman doubled off the scoreboard, only his sixth double hitting right-handed this season.
If the Cardinals and Braves finish with the same record, they'll play a tiebreaking game in St. Louis on Thursday. In the quiet clubhouse after Monday's game, the Cardinals lamented their missed opportunity.
"It's part of the game," Pujols said. "It's not like we didn't want to take advantage of those opportunities. We fought back, we still have two games left. We'll see what happens these next couple of games.
"It would be a little tough with Atlanta winning and us losing (Monday). But now, the worst thing that can happen is hopefully we can push this to a Thursday playoff game. Anything can happen in the next couple of days. This game is crazy."
NOTES: Holliday led off the second inning with his team-leading 36th double. ... Cardinals SS Rafael Furcal left the game in the fifth inning with tightness in his left hamstring. La Russa said Furcal would probably sit out the final two regular-season games. ... Astros LF J.D. Martinez left in the fifth with a bruised left foot. ... Wright had not allowed a run in 17th consecutive appearances before Berkman's double. ... Berkman is hitting .406 with 14 RBIs against Houston this season.