LOS ANGELES -- A sinking line drive sailed through the chilly evening air toward Matt Holliday. All he needed to do was make the catch and St. Louis would have a series-tying victory.
Instead, the ball smacked him in the gut and dropped to the grass -- and the Cardinals never recovered.
Holliday's crucial error with two outs in the ninth inning led to a two-run rally that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers a 3-2 victory Thursday and put the Cardinals on the brink of playoff elimination.
"I didn't see the ball," Holliday said. "Obviously, I can catch a ball that's hit right at me. It's very difficult to swallow. We had a chance to win the game. It was unfortunate that it happened when it did."
Ex-Cardinal Ronnie Belliard and pinch-hitter Mark Loretta came through with RBI singles off All-Star closer Ryan Franklin, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. They can close it out with a sweep in Game 3 on Saturday in St. Louis.
Holliday, who homered in the second inning, was a huge reason the Cardinals won the NL Central. Acquired from the Oakland Athletics in a July trade, his hitting tear helped them cruise to the division title. Along the way, he committed one error in 63 regular-season games with his new team.
But his fielding gaffe Thursday cost the Cardinals dearly.
"It's about as tough a loss as you can have, except we still have an opportunity to play Saturday," manager Tony La Russa said. "Right now I think it's important to get upset about the game that got away. We did a lot to win that one and didn't win it. Turn the page too quickly means you don't care."
The Cardinals got a stellar performance from starter Adam Wainwright, who left with a 2-1 lead after eight innings. Still, St. Louis went home empty-handed after opening the series with two Cy Young Award contenders on the mound: Chris Carpenter and Wainwright.
With the bases empty in the ninth, Holliday charged in on James Loney's shot to left field. But he couldn't make the play, allowing Loney to reach second.
"That ball got lost in 50,000 white towels shaking in front of Matt's face," Wainwright said. "It doesn't really seem fair that an opposing team should be able to allow their fans to shake white towels when there's a white baseball flying through the air. How about Dodger Blue towels?"
Franklin walked Casey Blake before Belliard singled up the middle, scoring pinch-runner Juan Pierre. A passed ball moved runners up to second and third, and Franklin walked Russell Martin on four pitches to load the bases.
Loretta, batting for reliever George Sherrill, was 0-for-15 in his career against Franklin before fisting a soft single to center that drove in Blake. That triggered a huge celebration, with teammates jumping on Loretta in a pile between first and second base.
"Unfortunately, I did know the numbers," said Loretta, who signed with the Dodgers as a free agent in the offseason. "I really didn't have a lot of nerves. I felt like all the pressure was on them at that point. I was fortunate to find a little bit of fairway out there."
The late rally was nothing new for the Dodgers. They won 23 regular-season games in their final at-bat, most in the National League, according to STATS LLC.
"Until that last out, nobody ever gives up," Loretta said. "That's sort of been our modus this year. We started off 13-0, we had a bunch of these last-minute wins, so it obviously gives us some confidence in that situation."
Andre Ethier homered and Sherrill got the win for the Dodgers, in position for a sweep in the opening round for the second consecutive season. Last year, they won the first two games at Wrigley Field before closing out the Chicago Cubs at home in Game 3.
Franklin took the loss, spoiling an outstanding effort by Wainwright.
The NL leader with 19 victories, Wainwright allowed three hits, struck out seven and walked one. That followed a subpar outing by Carpenter, who lasted only five innings and took the loss in Game 1.
Wainwright was 1-0 with four saves when the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series in their last playoff appearance, making him the first pitcher since Bob Welch to save a World Series game and then start a postseason game.
"The quality of that was so good it's almost impossible to describe under the circumstances," La Russa said about Wainwright. "He had very little to work with, and he was just outstanding."
Trever Miller started the ninth and retired Ethier on a popup before turning it over to Franklin.
Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw, a 21-year-old left-hander starting for the first time in the postseason, allowed nine hits and two runs in 6 2/3 innings. He struck out four and walked two in a game dominated by starting pitching, the opposite of the Dodgers' 5-3 win in Wednesday night's opener.
The Cardinals snapped a 1-all tie in the seventh on Colby Rasmus' RBI double off the center-field wall. Mark DeRosa, who led off with a single, scored and Rasmus was out trying to advance to third on the throw home.
Ethier tied it 1-all with a homer in the fourth -- the Dodgers' first hit off Wainwright, who retired his first 11 batters. The right-hander set down another six in a row until Rafael Furcal's two-out single in the sixth.
St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina got hit in the head as Ramirez's bat swung around in the seventh but stayed in the game.