ST. LOUIS - Take a baseball team that has been producing runs on most nights with the regularity that an average soccer team scores goals. Have the starting pitcher be making his first big-league appearance in 3 weeks and, for the fun of it, have him admit ahead of time that it might take a couple of games to get back to where he needs to be.

In the other dugout, put the team that leads the league in runs scored and whose starter has the third-lowest earned run average in the league.

Then hide the wife and kids because what unfolds after that doesn't figure to be very pretty.

The dramatis personae in this nine-act play at Busch Stadium last night, of course, were the Phillies and Roy Oswalt vs. the Cardinals and Jaime Garcia. And it was just another reminder that baseball is a funny game that frequently confounds expectations.

What emerged was a taut contest that wasn't decided until the bottom of the ninth when the Cardinals finally prevailed, 2-1. The Phillies' fourth straight loss cut their lead over the Marlins, who were rained out in New York, to a half-game in the NL East.

Oswalt was on a pitch count. That plus an injury to promising, 24-year-old rookie reliever Michael Stutes may have had an impact on the endgame, though. Because his starter wasn't stretched out, Charlie Manuel had to bring Stutes in to start the sixth. Because Stutes lasted only three pitches before having to depart, the manager got into the rest of his bullpen more quickly than he hoped.

"We were looking to get maybe two innings out of him," Manuel said.

So with the game tied into the bottom of the ninth and three of the first four St. Louis batters being righthanded hitters, Danys Baez became the fifth Philadelphia pitcher of the night. A dribbler up the middle by Ryan Theriot, a single by Jon Jay and a bloop to right by Albert Pujols loaded the bases with nobody out.

Baez got Matt Holliday to ground into a force play at the plate, then lefthander J.C. Romero came in to face switch-hitting Lance Berkman, who hit the first pitch he saw over the drawn-up outfield to end the game.

It wasn't immediately apparent how badly Stutes, who has a 3.18 earned run average since being called up from Triple A Lehigh Valley, is hurt. The first announcement said he had a strained right side. He said he felt something in the middle of his back. He will be examined today after the team gets home.

"I've never had an injury before," he said. "Hopefully it's a brief thing."

That was at least a fresh concern for a team that has used the disabled list 10 times already this season. The sickly offense has been a recurring theme.

The Phillies' only run last night was unearned. They've scored a total of seven runs in their last four games and three or fewer in 22 of their 41 games this season.

About the only positive development for the Phillies was that Oswalt was sharper and more effective than could reasonably have been expected. He threw 76 pitches in his five innings, 48 for strikes, allowing a run on seven hits. His fastball sat comfortably in the low-to-mid 90s, according to the scoreboard radar.

"I actually felt pretty decent coming out of the bullpen," he said. "We'll see how it goes in the next few days. It went pretty well [last night]."

Oswalt appeared to miss a potentially serious injury in the second when Berkman, his former Astros teammate, singled up the middle. Oswalt reached for the ball and it brushed his fingers. He shook his hand after the play was over but was able to stay in the game.

"I tried to deflect it toward [shortstop]," he said. "I knew if I tried to catch it, it would hurt pretty bad."

Garcia, meanwhile, pitched up to expectations. He scattered four hits through the first seven innings before the Phillies tied the score with the help of an error in the top of the eighth.

With one out, Jimmy Rollins hit a popup to Cardinals second baseman Tyler Greene, who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement. Greene dropped the ball. Rule 5 draft pick Michael Martinez, who started in center in place of the injured Shane Victorino, singled to right-center for his second hit of the game. Rollins went to third and scored easily when Placido Polanco flied out deep to center.

Once again, though, that was all and it wasn't enough.

Phillers

Not only were the Phillies scheduled to arrive home shortly before dawn this morning and turn right around to play the Rockies tonight, but they're in the middle of a stretch of 20 straight days without a scheduled day off. The next open date: June 2 . . . A moment of silence was observed for Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew last night. Charlie Manuel, who discussed his relationship with Killebrew at length late last week when it was announced that the former slugger was entering hospice care, said he was saddened by the news but had nothing but happy memories of his former Minnesota Twins teammate.