"We've just had some pretty big unfortunate situations in big spots," San Diego center fielder Jody Gerut said. "And they have got us dearly."
Such was again the case Saturday as the Padres -- who have dropped 22 of their last 28 games, falling now to 37-61 -- faded badly after leading 5-0 with their most consistent and resilient pitcher, Randy Wolf, on the mound.
"You've just got to keep pushing," Padres manager Bud Black said, leaning back in the chair of his office. "To a man, our guys are playing hard, breaking up double plays, hustling. We're going out to win games. It's a great test."
The Padres, by all counts, did not pass the latest exam on Saturday, dropping their third game in as many days to the Cardinals (56-43), who didn't need to pepper the cheap seats of the stadium with home-run balls to get their point across.
On the strength of a three-run home run by Edgar Gonzalez, a former Cardinals Minor Leaguer who never got a chance to play in the Gateway City, the Cardinals took a 5-0 lead in the second inning. Four scoreless innings by Wolf had the Padres, seemingly, primed for victory.
That rosy outlook was replaced by frustration after Wolf allowed four runs in the fifth inning and two more runs in the sixth inning -- an error by third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff extended the inning -- as the Cardinals pushed ahead.
Wolf (6-10) allowed just three hits over the first four innings and benefited from a minor change in his delivery -- lifting his hands over his head in his windup -- that allowed for more rhythm in his delivery.
The Cardinals, who drilled six home runs in the first two games of the series, got a single by pitcher Todd Wellemeyer to start the fifth inning. Wolf then struck out Brendan Ryan to bring up leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker.
Wolf nibbled at the corners, falling behind, 3-0, before Schumaker took a strike. The next pitch was a ball, which, in Wolf's mind, set the wheels in motion turning on what would become a big inning for the Cardinals.
"That's the one ... I've got to get ahead of Schumaker and go after him. That dictated the whole inning," Wolf said of the walk.
Ryan Ludwick followed with a single to load the bases for Albert Pujols, who jumped on a first-pitch fastball, driving it to the gap in left-center to clear the bases with a double. The Cardinals cut the lead to 5-4 on Rick Ankiel's single.
One inning later, with Wolf starting the inning at 85 pitches, Cesar Izturis reached on an infield single, advanced to second base on a bunt. Izturis moved to third base following a throwing error by Kouzmanoff on a ball hit by Ryan. Schumaker's ground ball allowed the tying run to score.
Cla Meredith was summoned from the bullpen. He walked Ludwick and then allowed an RBI infield single to Pujols on a ball shortstop Khalil Greene smothered in short left field.
The damage could have been worse had right fielder Brian Giles not made a running grab of a Troy Glaus fly ball down the right-field line. Giles, shading his eyes at one point while running, ran into the padded wall in four territory after making the catch.
"I didn't think he was going to make it," Gerut said. "That was outstanding."
The Padres loaded the bases with one out in the seventh inning and put two runners on with one out in the eighth inning. Each time, though, they couldn't score. They went quietly in the ninth inning, 1-2-3.
Where to now? The Padres wrap up their series with St. Louis on Sunday before heading to Cincinnati for three games and then Pittsburgh for four games.
"You've got to ride it out and keep on battling," Wolf said. "The last thing that you want is to feel sorry for yourself."