ST. LOUIS -- Eric Stults was on the mound for three of the Padres' last five wins over a 24-game span, and the Padres came within a bounce and even a few inches from making Sunday's game against the Cardinals the fourth.
But San Diego's late-game heroics weren't quite enough to pull off the come-from-behind win, instead, falling 3-2 to the Cardinals in the series finale at Busch Stadium.
With a one-run deficit in the top of the ninth, Alexi Amarista, representing the tying run, singled on a ground ball to center field. Cardinals closer Edward Mujica then retired Logan Forsythe for the second out but gave up another hit, this time to pinch-hitter Jesus Guzman. As the speedy Amarista rounded second and set his sights on scoring, the ball bounced into the stands along the third-base line, freezing Amarista at third on the ground-rule double.
With the go-ahead run now on base and two runners in scoring position, rookie second baseman Jedd Gyorko stepped into the box as a pinch-hitter and powered a 1-1 pitch deep into left field. Cardinals left fielder Allen Craig plucked the ball out of the air as it appeared headed either into the Padres bullpen for the three-run homer or just barely off the top of the fence for at least an RBI base hit.
"I thought it had a chance," Gyorko said. "You never really know. Kind of got in just a hair. That was the difference. He made a good play."
"That was pretty dramatic," Craig said. "I'm glad I caught it. I don't think it would have been out. It was just tough. I wasn't playing that deep and he just hit it straight over my head. I had to get back out there as quick as I could."
Padres manager Bud Black said after the game that had Guzman's hit not hopped into the seats for the ground-rule double, he was confident Amarista would have scored the tying run.
"Where Craig was and Alexi's speed, no doubt," Black said. "Where they were playing, they were sort of pinching the left-center field gap and deep -- that ball gets to the corner."
Black said he couldn't see the ball from his angle in the Padres dugout, but he was hoping a fan had reached out and touched the ball so he could make the case that the ball reaches the left corner without the interference.
"And you can maybe assume Alexi scores," Black said. "It's a judgment call by the umpires. If that ball did hop into the stands, there's nothing you can do about it. A bad break."
Fewer than 24 hours after putting up an early four-run cushion in Saturday's win, the Padres hit the ground running with Everth Cabrera's leadoff double against Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright. Yonder Alonso, who extended his road hitting streak to 12 games with a 3-for-4 performance, hit an RBI single, pushing Cabrera across.
But Cabrera's first-inning score was one of two minor blemishes in an otherwise scoreless outing for Wainwright. Padres leadoff hitters reached in seven of eight innings against Wainwright, but the right-hander still limited the Padres to just two runs on eight hits and two walks. The St. Louis ace struck out seven batters in his 13th win.
"He got tough with guys on base, there's no doubt about it," Black said. "He's a veteran pitcher with a lot of know-how. He knows how to get a ground ball, he knows how to get a strikeout. And he did that today when he needed it the most."
The Cardinals put up three runs against Stults in the third. Matt Carpenter led off with a double and Stults walked Yadier Molina to set up Craig's RBI single on a full count, continuing his impressive run with runners in scoring position, a situation in which he's batting a Major League-best .489.
"He obviously thrives on that," Stults said. "I tried to throw a fastball in, because I hadn't show anything in, but I left it down the middle. He just put a good swing on it."
David Freese followed with a two-run double, scoring Craig and Molina, but he was called out while trying to stretch it to a triple, and Stults induced two groundouts to contain the damage.
Stults navigated six innings in an uneven outing, reaching a career-high 124 pitches. It was the fourth time in his career that his pitch count surpassed 115. He tossed 122 on July 9 vs. Colorado and recorded his previous career high of 123 in May 2009. Stults evened his record at 8-8 with three earned runs against him on eight hits and a walk, and he struck out two batters.
"That third inning was an inning that kind of got away a little bit, but it was really the only inning that really hurt me," Stults said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to win the game because of that one inning."
The Padres closed to within one run in the sixth when Carlos Quentin scored on a double-play grounder from Will Venable, but they couldn't manage the tying score as Wainwright continued to roll.
Venable padded his impressive resume at Busch Stadium -- he entered the game batting .420 with three doubles, a triple, a homer and four RBIs in St. Louis -- with a highlight-reel diving catch in the fourth. He laid out for a fly ball in foul territory, and after a collective disappointed sigh, the crowd of 44,033 rewarded him with a round of applause.
"Will made some tremendous plays this year; that one might be the best," Black said. "He went a long way, just a headfirst dive [to the] warning track. The stands right there. It was a hell of a play."
Quentin made a highlight-reel play of his own in the seventh when he stretched out for a long fly ball from Craig, rolling into a somersault after the catch.
Chad Thornburg is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.