ST. LOUIS -- Challenged by three teams currently positioned for playoff inclusion on their recent 11-game road trip, the Cardinals returned to Busch Stadium on Monday to find another awaiting. Reminding the Cardinals that they, too, have big plans for October, the Dodgers soured the Cardinals' homecoming with a 3-2 victory to open the four-game series.
The Cardinals, who have won just three of their last nine, have not yet measured up well against the National League's best. Against the three division leaders -- Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles -- the Cardinals are a combined 5-12. The club has a 52-25 mark against everyone else in the league.
"I'm tired of tipping the hat," said Adam Wainwright, "but you just have to tip your hat over there."
The Dodgers team he faced Monday is quite different than the one the Cardinals saw when they last met in May. The Cardinals owned the NL's best record at that time and took the series at Dodger Stadium. Whispers of a managerial change in Los Angeles hung over the weekend. Yasiel Puig was still a week away from his debut.
Since then, though, the Dodgers have been an NL-best 42-21, and they sit two wins shy of matching the record of 17 straight road victories held by the 1916 New York Giants and '84 Tigers. On Monday, it was Dodgers righty Zack Greinke who mostly hushed a crowd of 42,464 and wiggled out of more trouble than Adam Wainwright could.
"We're feeling really good as a team when we come together on the road," said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. "It was a great crowd tonight, an electric atmosphere. I think we kind of thrive on that us-against-the-stadium-type mentality."
Coming off a four-game stretch in which they scored 44 runs, the Cardinals mustered two off Greinke. For the fourth straight game, the Cardinals tallied a first-inning run. Matt Carpenter's leadoff double helped spark that early activity.
But opportunities to tack on additional runs went wasted in the middle innings. David Freese, whose groundout stranded Carlos Beltran at third base in the first, left the bases loaded in the third. The Cardinals couldn't score in the fourth, either, despite putting runners on the corners with no outs.
Strikeouts by Daniel Descalso and Carpenter sandwiched Wainwright's sacrifice bunt in that frame.
An inning later, Allen Craig was thrown out at home trying to score from first on Freese's double. Showcasing his strong arm, Puig, throwing from the right-field wall, hit his cutoff man near the infield grass without a hop to help execute the play.
"It was a great relay, a great tag," manager Mike Matheny said. "That definitely took some momentum out."
"It's just an amazing play," added Ellis. "I didn't think there was any chance. It was a great throw by Puig, just picking it up and chucking it, and a great relay by [shortstop] Nick [Punto] getting it in on a very strong, accurate throw."
Greinke was tagged for a run in the seventh, though reliever Ronald Belisario retired Craig and Matt Holliday to prevent the tying run from getting past third. The Cardinals traded an out for a run in the inning, too.
Beltran, with just his second sacrifice bunt since 2008, moved runners to second and third with his successful execution with no outs. Pinch-hitter Adron Chambers eventually scored on a groundout. Matheny would not confirm whether he called for the bunt attempt or if Beltran initiated it on his own. Beltran was unavailable for comment.
A bunt attempt stalled the Cardinals' comeback attempt in the eighth. After Jon Jay popped out on his try at a sacrifice, Tony Cruz grounded into a double play.
"I have to get it done," said Jay, who received the sign to sacrifice. "I get that bunt down and we have a man on second, one out, and we're in good position to score. That's a play I should have made."
The Cardinals finished 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
"They've got a good club," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "Some days you're going to be able to keep them from doing it. But obviously, what they're doing is pretty remarkable with men in scoring position. It tells you how good they are."
For the third straight start, Wainwright was unsuccessful in securing his 14th win. Two of the seven hits he allowed went for extra bases, and both stung. Puig followed Adrian Gonzalez's leadoff walk in the fourth with a double to right-center. A single and groundout pushed both runners home to give L.A. a 2-1 lead.
One out away from finishing a scoreless seventh, Wainwright watched the Dodgers add to their lead within a two-pitch span. Punto's double extended the inning, and Greinke went down for a first-pitch curveball and dropped it into center for an RBI single, With the hit, Greinke improved to 15-for-37 this season.
"Greinke's pitch, I can't remember the last time a pitcher hit that for a hit, much less an RBI hit," Wainwright said. "That's not the pitch of the inning that really gets me. You might give up a bloop here, a bloop there, but you give up a double right there to Nick Punto on a bad pitch in the middle of the plate, that's the one that cost us."
Wainwright has pitched at least seven innings in 19 of his 24 starts, but the Cardinals have won just four of his past 10 outings. During that span, he has a 3.44 ERA.
With the loss, the Cardinals dropped two games behind the division-leading Pirates, who were idle Monday.
"A lot of things could have happened differently for us," Matheny said. "A lot of little things could have happened right to change the game, but they didn't. Now we move on."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.