ST. LOUIS — Barret Browning sat in front of his locker with an ice pack on his left shoulder and elbow. He sat alone, watching motionless as the seconds slowly ticked off the timer in his right hand that would allow him to remove the ice and go home.
The time couldn’t pass quick enough.
The final pitcher left in the Cardinals bullpen, Browning entered in the top of the 19th inning Sunday and allowed three runs as the Cardinals lost a heartbreaking marathon to the rival Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-3, at Busch Stadium.
Seven Cardinals pitchers had combined to allow just one earned run in 18 innings before Browning was called upon to pitch the 19th. But the rookie served up a one-out homer to Pedro Alvarez and a two-run single from Andrew McCutchen to make the 6-hour, 7-minute effort all for naught.
“It couldn’t be much worse,” Browning said. “The guys, everybody on this team fought to win this game. Everybody did their job except me. I don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed. I just didn’t do my job.
“This one is going to burn for a little bit.”
The Cardinals would have pulled into a tie with Pittsburgh for the second wild card spot in the National League with a win. Instead, they dropped to two games behind the Pirates and 8 1/2 games behind the Reds in the NL Central race.
And they were left with a sour taste in their mouth as they head into Monday’s off day. A game that was there for the taking — the Cardinals had base runners in the 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 18th innings but couldn’t score — became a game that might matter when the season ends.
The Cardinals used 22 of their 25 players including starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, who walked as a pitch-hitter in the 18th. And had the game gone much further, we might have seen the other three.
Pittsburgh’s three runs in the 19th inning gave the Cardinals their 9th loss in 12 extra-inning games this year. But none were more painful than Sunday’s.
“I don’t know if it could be any more disappointing,” said manager Mike Matheny. “I don’t know what else to say.
“The guys played hard. They did. They fought and I’m proud of how they went about it. I really would have liked to walk out of there with a win, but I like the way they played the game.”
The game featured plenty of good and bad for the Cardinals, some of which might be easily forgotten within a six-hour game that started with the return of left-hander Jaime Garcia from the disabled list. And let’s start there because, what a return it was.
Making his first start since June 5, Garcia had a career-high 10 strikeouts in eight strong innings and took a shutout into the sixth inning before his misplay on a bunt attempt led to a pair of unearned runs. He allowed just five hits and no walks in easily his best outing of the season.
Garcia became the first Cardinals left-hander with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks since Rick Ankiel had 11 strikeouts and no walks on Sept. 13, 2000, in Pittsburgh.
“It seems like two days ago when that happened,” Matheny said of Garcia. “I liked the way the ball was coming out of his hand and how they were reacting to it. I forgot how nasty his stuff was. He had so many miss-hits. You look at the inning he gave up runs and it totaled about 100 feet of distance. It’s a shame that’s how it happened.
“It was impressive. He looked great. That was as good as we’ve seen him this year. It’s a great sign.”
Ironically, Garcia started for the Cardinals in their 20-inning loss to the New York Mets in 2010 while Sunday’s Pirates starter Jeff Karstens started their 19-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves last season.
Not to be overlooked was the performance from rookie Joe Kelly out of the Cardinals bullpen. On the day he was moved to relief to make room for Garcia in the rotation, the right-hander entered to start the 12th inning and pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings before one of his runs scored on an infield single by Garrett Jones with the bases loaded and two outs in the 17th inning.
Kelly allowed just four hits and had four strikeouts in a surprising relief debut, throwing up five consecutive zeros before being pulled with two outs and the bases loaded in the 17th.
“I just took it inning by inning,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know how long I was going to go for. They kept coming back and said you’re going back out there, so it’s not like I knew how long I’d be out there for. I was just trying to make pitches and keep the game tied.
“We felt like we were going to win the whole time. It’s just one of those things where we have to keep grinding. Luck didn’t play on our side today.”
The Pirates’ lead was short-lived when the Cardinals came back to tie the game at 3 in the bottom of the 17th inning on a sac fly from Tony Cruz. But they left the winning run on second base — a theme that was prevalent throughout extras.
Offense was hard to come by for both teams Sunday, but the Cardinals had some particularly rough individual days. David Freese went 0-for-8 and Matt Holliday went 0-for-7 while Skip Schumaker and Rafael Furcal each went 1-for-7.
The Cardinals left 13 runners on base and were just 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. They had at least one runner on base in seven of the nine extra innings but scored just one run in the 17th.
The Pirates took two of the three games in the series with the contenders set to meet up in just eight days back in Pittsburgh for three more games.
“A loss is a loss but when you grind out there for 19 innings, I think it hurts a little more just because the time you spent out there,” said Dan Descalso, who went 0-for-4 after pinch-running for Allen Craig in the ninth inning. “We were out there for six and a half hours and we just didn’t come out on top.
“Those were three good games. We were in every game and that’s all you can really ask for. You have to find a way to win the close ones, but we’re going to have some battles with these guys down the stretch so it’s probably a good indication of how those games are going to go.”
The Cardinals will head to a variety of charity functions on Monday’s off day before returning to Busch Stadium for a three-game series with the Houston Astros on Tuesday. Then comes a season-defining road trip to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington to finish August.
The result didn’t match the effort Sunday. And we’re about to see how the Cardinals are going to respond.
“There’s nothing to say,” Matheny said. “I talked to everybody individually and let them know that you played the game hard and keep playing it hard and good things will happen. It was a tough one. A tough one to swallow.”
Said Browning, “Every game is just as important. We need to win ballgames and it doesn’t matter if its an extra-inning game or a nine inning game. We need wins, that’s the bottom line…. I was ready to pitch. I just didn’t get the job done.”