ATLANTA (AP) — Tim Hudson relishes the chance to pitch in such an important game.
His team would've preferred it didn't come down to this.
For the Atlanta Braves, a once-commanding lead in the NL wild-card race has been frittered away. They're on the brink of a historic September collapse, heading to the final day of the regular season tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the final playoff spot.
"It's like living out a bad dream," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said.
Atlanta took sole possession of the NL wild-card lead on June 20, according to STATS LLC, and held it until Tuesday's 7-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. Just three weeks ago, the margin was a comfortable 8½ games.
While the Braves slumped, St. Louis got hot and won 21 of 29, the latest a 13-6 triumph at Houston after spotting the last-place Astros an early five-run lead.
Now, the Cardinals are trying to become the first team to wipe out a lead of at least eight games in September, though they've got some competition. The Boston Red Sox have fallen apart just like the Braves, allowing Tampa Bay to pull even in the AL wild-card race going to the 162nd game.
"It's kind of fed us here the last few days, 120 years of baseball and this is one of those historic runs to tie," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "But there's a different story between tying and finishing it off."
At least the Braves still had their ace in reserve. Hudson (16-10) was set to face Philadelphia's Joe Blanton (1-2) with the season on the line.
"There's no other place I'd rather be than on the mound when the game means something," Hudson said.
Atlanta has lost four in a row — scoring just four runs in that span — and eight of 11 to put itself in this predicament.
Hudson tried to stay upbeat.
"It's no secret what's going on," he said. "We've had some tough games. But once this is all over and, hopefully, we win and we're going to the next level, I think there will be a lot of weight off our shoulders. Hopefully we can get in there and it will be a different tune come playoff time."
If the teams are still tied after Wednesday, there will be a one-game playoff the following day in St. Louis. The Cardinals earned the home field with a 5-1 lead over the Braves in the season series.
In Houston, Chris Carpenter (10-9) will start for St. Louis in the regular-season finale. The 105-loss Astros will counter with Brett Myers (7-13), who has a four-game winning streak and a 1.24 ERA in his last five starts.
"We feel pretty good about it," St. Louis star Lance Berkman said. "We've been playing well."
The Cardinals appeared in big trouble when Houston jumped to a 5-0 lead in the third inning. But St. Louis tied it with a five-run fourth, and pinch-hitter Ryan Theriot delivered a tiebreaking two-run triple in the seventh.
"It's been unbelievable," said Allen Craig, who came through with two big hits after replacing Matt Holliday. "I don't know if it's meant to be or not. All I know is that we've made an incredible run and we've got one game left and we're going to give it our best shot. If it happens, then it was meant to be."
Derek Lowe (9-17) had another miserable outing for the Braves, surrendering five runs in four-plus innings. He's lost all five of his September starts.
Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Jimmy Rollins homered to back a strong showing by Roy Oswalt, who tuned up for the playoffs with three-hit ball over six scoreless innings.
"I'm man enough to say I've had a terrible year," said Lowe, whose ERA climbed to 5.05. "But we've still got a chance. Our best pitcher is going."
The Braves were hit late in the season by injuries to two of their best starters (All-Star Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson), and they've been hampered all year by a spotty offense.
The problems keep piling up. Jones is slowed by an ailing right knee, and shortstop Alex Gonzalez left Tuesday's game after aggravating his strained right calf. He's not expected to play in the finale.
"We've played 161 games and it comes down to one," first-year manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We've done it to ourselves. No excuses there. We've got to go get it."
In their latest loss, the Braves were behind by the eighth pitch of the game, which Utley drove into the center-field seats.
An uneasy feeling settled over Turner Field. It would only get worse. The Braves fans stopped booing only long enough to cheer on the last-place Astros from afar, breaking into periodic chants of "Let's Go Houston!"
Early on, the Cardinals appeared headed to a second straight loss, but they went ahead for good with a four-run seventh.
Berkman hit a two-out single and scored on a tying double by Craig, who took over when Holliday departed with a sore right hand. Yadier Molina walked before Theriot's clutch triple made it 8-6.
Nick Punto doubled in Theriot, Craig padded the lead with a three-run homer in the eighth, and Punto added a solo shot in the ninth.
Eduardo Sanchez (3-1) struck out two in 1 1-3 innings for the win on a night when the Cardinals used seven relievers following an early exit by Jake Westbrook, who gave up seven hits and five runs in 2 1-3 innings. It was Sanchez's first appearance since June 12 because of a shoulder injury.
The crowd in Houston booed loudly when Berkman, the longtime Astros star, scored in the seventh.
The fans at Turner Field were even crankier.
No one could've foreseen such a dramatic finish only a few weeks ago.
"There's not a person in that locker room who I wouldn't want to be on my team to play that game," Fredi Gonzalez said.
"I would hope so," Jones said, trying to make light of the grim situation. "We're pretty much all he has anyway."