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Rox's NL Wild Card lead shrinks to 2 1/2

Rox's Wild Card lead shrinks to 2 1/2

DENVER -- The Rockies clung to their breathing room Saturday night, but the National League Wild Card leaders had every reason to feel claustrophobic as the race tightened a little too close for comfort. While the Cardinals showered themselves in champagne following their division-clinching 6-3 victory at Coors Field, Colorado's lead over the surging Braves shrunk to 2 1/2 games.

"We left it all out there tonight, there's no question about that," manager Jim Tracy said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to win the ballgame, but I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the effort and the way we went about it."

Chief among those efforts was starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, who has had his share of marquee matchups down the stretch, facing the likes of Dan Haren of the D-backs, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito of the Giants and Saturday night, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright. But despite taking the loss, the Rockies right-hander showed he could keep company in the upper ranks of elite NL pitchers.

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Jimenez struggled in the first inning, walking leadoff hitter Skip Schumaker and Albert Pujols, then yielding a shallow RBI single to center to Matt Holliday, a run-scoring groundout to first to Rick Ankiel and an RBI single to Yadier Molina that sneaked past Todd Helton. But he bounced back strong, retiring 10 of the next 11 he faced. He gave the Cardinals little opportunity to add on until Wainwright doubled with two outs in the fifth and Jimenez walked Schumaker for the second time in the game before rearing back for his fifth strikeout of the night when it mattered the most.

"We got a very, very special guy," Tracy said of Jimenez. "When he clears this [first-inning] hurdle, every firth day that he walks out there on the mound, the potential to shut an opponent completely out is going to be there."

With Jimenez finding his form, the Rockies climbed back in the middle innings, paced by Helton's three hits. Helton doubled in the third and came around to score when Troy Tulowitzki's grounder to third resulted in a wild overthrow from Joe Thurston. The Rockies also had multihit performances by leadoff hitter Carlos Gonzalez, Yorvit Torrealba, Brad Hawpe and Clint Barmes.

"Our rhythm's coming back," Torrealba said. "We're having more quality at-bats. Keep in mind, we faced two guys that could be Cy Youngs. The guy tonight and last night [Chris Carpenter], we only scored one off him, but we had some quality at-bats as a team, and that's huge. I think we're going the right way. We'll come back tomorrow and hopefully win the series."

The Rockies had their share of complaints with the strike zone called by home-plate umpire Dan Iassogna, who rang up Torrealba and Hawpe on questionable called third strikes in the second inning. But after Tracy risked ejection with some blatant barking from the dugout during Hawpe's second at-bat, the Rockies right fielder drilled the next pitch he saw into the left-field seats for a game-tying two-run homer.

"Obviously, there were some tough things that took place via the decision making," Tracy said, citing what he thought was a missed third strike call against Pujols in the first-inning rally and a called third strike on Jason Giambi with the go-ahead run on base in the bottom of the eighth. "I'm not one to make waves, but I got a little bit excited tonight more than once."

St. Louis reclaimed the lead in the top of the seventh when Jason LaRue, in the game after Molina suffered a bruised left knee in the bottom of the fourth, sent the first pitch he saw over the fence in left with what proved to be the game-winning run.

"It was his first AB," Jimenez said. "I threw a slider for a strike. I didn't expect him to swing at the pitch, especially when he knew I throw hard."

Jimenez lights the radar gun up in the high 90s, flirting with triple digits every time he takes the mound, and he admitted to sometimes needing an inning to find his command.

"It's not easy to come right out of the bullpen, throw hard and locate the fastball right away," Jimenez said. "It takes me a little time on the mound to get used to it and throw my fastball down in the zone."

His ability to settle down after the first frame and keep pace with Wainwright until the seventh offered him no consolation.

"I could say I'm pleased, but I'm not, because that cost us the game," Jimenez said. "If they hadn't scored three runs in the first inning, we might still be playing."

Pinch-hitter Ryan Ludwick gave the Redbirds a pair of insurance runs with his first swing in the top of the ninth, taking Matt Daley deep on a 1-1 pitch with two outs. But it was Wainwright's superlative performance, throwing 130 pitches over eight innings that secured the division title for the Cards.

"He was throwing the ball great," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of sticking with his starter so late in the game. "He had an extra day. He's got an extra day next time. The last two games that he pitched, we backed him off. There was a lot at stake for him and for us. He might have won the [NL Cy Young] Award in that eighth inning."

Holding a 2 1/2-game lead with seven games to play, the Rockies insist there's no pressure on them, but they'd breathe easier if they could secure the series Sunday.

"We're still ahead," Tracy said. "We saw what the Cardinals just accomplished with their victory tonight, and if we keep going in the manner that we have the last couple of nights, I promise you that we'll put ourselves in a very good position to maybe have a little celebration like that for ourselves."

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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