The series shifts to PETCO Park for Game 3 on Saturday night, with Game 4, if necessary, Sunday at PETCO. If the Padres sweep at home, a decisive Game 5 would be staged at Busch Stadium on Monday.
"We've put pressure on that team," the Padres' Brian Giles said. "We just haven't had the big hit yet. Saturday we'll turn that around.
"We're playing for our lives now. No more tomorrows. We've got to win three games, starting Saturday. We've done it before against these guys."
That was in May, when the Padres were performing with the intensity and opportunism the Cards have shown in taking the first two games of this series. Giles and Co. came into Busch Stadium and won three in a row.
There's no secret formula. Everyone knows what it takes.
"It's pitching and defense and timely hitting," the Padres' Mark Sweeney said. "We're putting parts of all three of those elements together, but they've done it a little better than us so far. You have to give them credit. That's how that team won 100 games."
Repeating their unsuccessful Game 1 formula, the Padres let early opportunities slip away against Mulder and stirred in the late innings. But the big blow they needed wasn't forthcoming.
This time, the Padres having scored once with two singles, a walk and a hit batsman, Sweeney struck out against Randy Flores in the eighth inning to leave the bases loaded -- just as Ramon Hernandez had fanned to leave the bases full to end Game 1.
The Cardinals figured out ways to manufacture runs, gifted counterpunches seizing on the slightest opening. The Padres have outhit St. Louis in both games, including 10-6 in Game 2, but that 23-16 hit advantage hasn't been reflected on the scoreboard. Seven double plays in two games have been deadly.
"They were perfect in their execution," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "We had our chances, and we were just missing the big hit today."
With Pedro Astacio on the mound, the Cards had a 4-0 lead through four innings, even though they'd managed just three hits, scoring twice in the third without the benefit of a hit.
"It's part of the game," Astacio said. "Everybody played hard behind me. Things happen in this game, and you try to pick each other up. We can't worry about this game now. It's over. We have to get ready for Saturday and see what happens."
After loading the bases with one out in the second inning against Mulder, only to have rookie Ben Johnson strike out and Astacio bounce back to Mulder, the Padres once again experienced the third-inning blues. It was reminiscent of Game 1, when the Cards scored three times against Jake Peavy to carve a 4-0 lead without hitting a ball hard.
This time, Astacio walked Abraham Nunez on a full count leading off and induced catcher Yadier Molina to ground sharply to shortstop Khalil Greene on what looked like a double play. But the ball jumped up on Greene and bounded away off his chest for an error.
"Sometimes you try to assess it and see what you could have done differently," Greene said. "I don't think I could have done anything differently on that play."
After Mulder sacrificed the runners along with two strikes, David Eckstein stroked a two-strike grounder wide of first. Xavier Nady backhanded the ball and come up throwing, but Nunez slid safely under Hernandez's tag.
A walk to Jim Edmonds loaded the bases, and another walk to Albert Pujols forced home Molina. Astacio struck out Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders to avoid further damage.
The Cards added a pair of runs in the fourth. Mark Grudzielanek singled and took third when Nunez doubled over Johnson's head in right, the ball bounding over the wall.
"It was kind of dark out there," said Johnson, who was in shadows as the ball soared his way. "I lost it and picked it up at the last second -- too late. I misplayed the ball. I believe I should make that play."
Coupled with the strikeout with the bases loaded, it made for a rough playoff debut for the young man from Memphis.
"Bad day to have a bad game, I guess," Johnson said, softly.
When Molina grounded to Nady, the first baseman again came home, but Grudzielanek beat his high throw. Eckstein's squeeze bunt plated Nunez for a 4-0 lead.
After Clay Hensley shut down the Cards in the fifth and sixth, the Padres stirred in the seventh. Greene, who'd walked and singled previously, doubled to right-center leading off and took third on Joe Randa's single to center.
After Nady singled home Greene, pinch-hitter Miguel Olivo grounded into a double play started by Grudzielanek at second. It was the fourth of the day by St. Louis, tying an NLDS record.
"I hit the ball pretty good," Olivo said, "but the second baseman was too close to the base. We've hit a lot of balls so hard, but most of the time right at guys. We need more luck."
After Damian Jackson was hit by a pitch, right-hander Julian Tavarez was summoned to replace Mulder. Ryan Klesko batted for Eric Young and flied to left, ending the threat.
The Cards extended the lead in the seventh against Rudy Seanez. Edmonds walked leading off and took third on Pujols' hit-and-run single, both men scoring on Reggie Sanders' one-out double into the left-field corner.
Showing their late resolve, just as they had in Game 1 with three ninth-inning runs, the Friars put together singles by Hernandez and Randa in the eighth along with a walk by Giles to score a run when Tarvarez hit Nady with a pitch.
Southpaw Flores was called to relieve Tavarez, and he struck out Sweeney to quell the uprising.
"We're just missing the big hit to keep the rallies going," Bochy mused.
If the Padres can't change the script at home on Saturday night, they'll watch the adept, opportunistic Cardinals dance off to the NLCS.