LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Cardinals' first three batters in Game 5 loaded the bases. Matt Adams stepped to the plate with a chance to stake St. Louis to a commanding early lead with a chance to close out the NL championship series.
Instead, the burly slugger struck out on a bouncing pitch in the dirt. Yadier Molina followed him with a meek double-play grounder.
"If my at-bat changes, it could swing the game," Adams said. "I didn't get the job done. We didn't get it done."
If that lament sounds familiar, that's because the Cardinals had much the same problems last October in the last three games of a nightmare NLCS.
Even after a ninth-inning rally, the Cardinals were left regretting the opportunities they missed Wednesday while failing to finish Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 6-4 defeat.
For the second straight season, the Cardinals fanned on their first chance to close out an NLCS.
Just like last October, they've got two more tension-filled shots at it -- but at least this year, they'll be in St. Louis.
"We had a couple of opportunities to do something, and we just couldn't make it happen," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. "These guys have done a tremendous job in those exact same situations all season long. You're going to have games where you just can't make it happen, and we've got to figure out a way to get it done the next time we get a chance."
That would be Friday night in St. Louis.
The 2011 World Series champions clearly know how to close out a series, but anxious Cards fans could be forgiven for seeing a few echoes of last season's NLCS struggles in this punchless performance before that ninth-inning madness.
The Cardinals also had a 3-1 series lead on San Francisco in the NLCS last season, but they scored just one run while losing the final three games, dropping the last two at the Giants' waterfront ballpark in a spectacular offensive collapse.
"We're not going to San Francisco," said 2011 playoff hero David Freese, who went 0 for 4 to drop to .118 for the NLCS. "That's a big plus, but the Dodgers also have confidence they can win two there."
Plans for yet another World Series at Busch Stadium must be shelved for two more days after Greinke and Brian Wilson combined to retire 16 straight Cardinals. St. Louis rallied for two runs and four hits in the ninth against closer Kenley Jansen, but it was too late.
Despite the Cardinals' 3-2 series lead heading home, their offensive struggles in the NLCS are mounting. With 10 hits in Game 5, St. Louis boosted its series batting average 30 points to a robust .178 with just two homers -- both in Game 4 -- and 43 strikeouts.
The biggest offender in Game 5 was the slow-footed Molina, but nobody in the lineup did enough to counteract the Dodgers' four homers off Joe Kelly and St. Louis' normally reliable bullpen.
"Right now I'm frustrated," said Molina, 3 for 17 in the series. "I mean, I had the chance to help my team win in the first inning and I didn't come through. That was the turning point. If we score early, that could have made the difference. But that's part of baseball. Some days you're going to have bad games. But we're going to be ready to go on Friday."
Offense was a strength in St. Louis' regular season. The Cards were second in the NL with a .269 average and 1,494 hits, scoring a league-leading 783 runs -- a whopping 77 more than second-place Colorado.
"We have the perfect guys hitting, the guys that have been hot all year long," said Carlos Beltran, who drove in a run with his first career postseason triple in the third. "We're OK, man. We've got a one-game lead. We weren't expecting to come in and sweep them."
St. Louis has already quadrupled its run total from those three losses to San Francisco last October, but the Cards' bats were ominously silent between Molina's second rally-killing, double-play grounder in the third inning and that rally in the ninth.
Jansen gave up Matt Holliday's bloop double to lead off the ninth, and St. Louis strung together singles from Adams, Jon Jay and Pete Kozma. But Jansen struck out pinch-hitter Adron Chambers looking with the tying run on first base to wrap it up.
"I shouldn't take that pitch," Chambers said. "It was too close. He made a great pitch, and he got the call."
Kelly repeatedly avoided trouble in the series opener against Greinke, persevering through three rough innings and leaving a quality start with the score tied.
The Southern California native couldn't get away with it in Game 5, giving up two runs in a four-hit Dodgers rally in the second before solo shots by Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, who put a 96 mph fastball deep into the right field stands an estimated 447 feet away.
"Just a couple of mistake pitches," Kelly said. "We still feel like we're in a really good position. We're going home, and we've got Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright going. That's pretty good."