With the season on the line, the Atlanta Braves couldn't get the final three outs.
Now they'll have the whole winter to ponder an unprecedented collapse.
Braves closer Craig Kimbrel surrendered the tying run in the ninth, and Hunter Pence came through with a two-out, run-scoring single in the 13th to give the Philadelphia Phillies a 4-3 victory that ended Atlanta's season Wednesday night without a trip to the playoffs that looked like a certainty just a few weeks ago.
"It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands," Kimbrel said. "And that's the feeling I have now."
The game ended more than an hour after St. Louis routed Houston 8-0 to claim at least a share of the wild card. The Cardinals earned it outright when David Herndon earned his first career save by getting Freddie Freeman to hit into a season-ending double play.
This one might hurt as bad as all those post-season losses in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Braves were 10½ games ahead of St. Louis before play on Aug. 26. They were still up by 8½ games on the morning of Sept. 6. Instead of popping champagne for a second straight trip to the playoffs, they became the first team in major league history to squander a lead of at least eight games for a playoff spot in September.
They had some company when Boston did the same in the American League, but that was of little consolation in Atlanta.
The Braves had this one. And they blew it, losing five straight to end the regular season and going 9-18 in the final month.
Riding a strong showing by starter Tim Hudson and a two-run homer by Dan Uggla, Atlanta went to the ninth with a 3-2 lead and its record-setting rookie closer on the mound.
But the hard-throwing Kimbrel couldn't get the three outs needed for his 47th save and a trip to St. Louis for a one-game playoff Thursday night. He was all over the place, walking three, and Chase Utley's sacrifice fly tied it. The stocky right-hander couldn't even finish the inning, giving way to Kris Medlen.
"My mind was rushing," Kimbrel said. "Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast. My brain. I didn't put it together. It was just too late … When you walk guys, nothing good ever happens."
Medlen had pitched only one game in the big leagues all year after coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he got the third out in the ninth and breezed through the 10th as well. Unheralded Anthony Varvaro and Cristhian Martinez also pitched scoreless innings, but the Braves' punchless offence just couldn't produce another run in time.
Atlanta scored only seven runs in its last five games.
In the 13th, Scott Linebrink (4-4) got himself in trouble with a one-out walk to Brian Schneider, a .176 hitter. Jimmy Rollins flied out to centre, but Utley grounded a 3-2 pitch into right field to keep the inning going. Pence followed with a blooper to right off the fists, the weakly hit ball barely making it to the outfield grass.
But it was in just the right spot. Uggla slid out to get it but had no play anywhere. Schneider raced in with the go-ahead run.
"Liney made a great pitch," Uggla said. "Hunter just fought it off and it landed in no-man's land. I couldn't make a play on it. Just one of those things. It kind of describes the whole September."
Chipper Jones started the 13th by striking out, but Uggla gave the Braves a glimmer of hope by drawing a walk off Herndon. What was left of the raucous crowd of more than 45,000 pleaded for Freeman to come through, but all he could do was hit a grounder to first baseman John Mayberry, who started the 3-6-3 double play that ended the Braves' season.
Uggla struggled to get up at second base. Freeman kneeled down the right-field line, looking as though he couldn't believe the collapse was complete.
Justin De Fratus (1-0) earned his first career win with a scoreless 12th.
Hudson pitched six-hit ball over 6 1-3 innings, just the sort of performance Atlanta needed given its offensive struggles of late.
But the final innings were excruciating for the Braves, who saw the Cardinals' big lead on the out-of-town board and knew they had to have a win.
Eric O'Flaherty got a double play with two aboard to escape the seventh. Jonny Venters struck out Raul Ibanez with the bases loaded to end the eighth. But Kimbrel, who set a rookie record for saves this season, couldn't get the one he needed most.
The mood in the Atlanta clubhouse was sombre before the game. Jones was sprawled out in a recliner watching television. Uggla sat quietly at his locker. Hudson stared straight ahead, focusing on one of the most important starts of his long career.
Then, shortly before Atlanta took the field, the 39-year-old Jones, the only remaining player from the 1995 World Series champions, gathered the entire team around him in the dugout for a pep talk. Everyone listened intently, then began clapping when he finished.
The Phillies went with little-used Joe Blanton as their starter, but the NL East champions didn't go easy on their division rival. All the regular starters except Shane Victorino were in the lineup, and even Blanton only went two innings before giving way to regular starter Cole Hamels, who made the first relief appearance of his career to tune up for the playoffs.
With the game tied 1-1, the Braves struck against Hamels in the third. Michael Bourn led off with a single and stole second. Martin Prado followed with an infield hit, Bourn holding at second. Then, Bourn took off for third base, going for his third steal of the night. He was thrown out on a disputed call, ripping off his helmet and griping that his left foot got to the bag just before Polanco made the tag.
The replay showed Bourn had a point, and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez came out to argue briefly with umpire Dan Iassogna. Jones struck out and Hamels was one strike from getting out of the inning after jumping ahead 0-2 on Uggla. The lefty tried to fool the slugger with a fastball. It didn't work.
Uggla drove the pitch into seats in left-centre for his 36th homer of the season.
Turns out, it was just an afterthought.
More than three hours later, the lead was gone. So was the game. And the season.