ST. LOUIS - They sat at five tables eating tacos, and the general sentiment was that this is not the meal to eat immediately before a flight home, where the fate of the season rests in one game. Mexican - not champagne and beer showers - was the postgame meal Wednesday in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium. There was no celebration, no smiles, no looking ahead.

One hundred and two wins, the dream pitching staff, and a season of unparalleled expectations were whittled to one game. After a 5-3 loss to the Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League division series, doubt penetrated a Phillies team that thrives on its confidence. They, just like an entire city, know the heartache of a year ago when an offense sputtered.

"Might be fitting," Charlie Manuel said, "that it goes down to the fifth game."

That could be the final time the Phillies play in this charmed season. Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, Roy Halladay will start opposite his close friend Chris Carpenter in the Phillies' first series-deciding game since 1981. The fickle luck that tightens the gap between great and good teams in a best-of-five series is reduced to nine innings of baseball.

"We'll see what we're made of," Hunter Pence said.

There is time to atone, but the same flaw that befell the Phillies in 2010 has threatened to derail another postseason. Roy Oswalt was taken deep by David Freese and bested by Edwin Jackson. Twice the Phillies have coughed up an early lead. After a two-run first inning, the Phillies managed four hits.

The same phrases and tendencies from the 2010 National League Championship Series are being repeated.

"Some of our guys started swinging pretty hard," Manuel said, "so that's a sign of a being a little bit overanxious trying to do too much."

Hitting coach Greg Gross agreed. He went a step further than Manuel and spoke of the harsh reality that a lineup has apparently yet to realize.

"Everybody is trying to get us back into the game or put us ahead with one swing," Gross said. "We're not that kind of club anymore."

No, the Phillies need hits in bunches because it's clear this Cardinals team will pose a pesky test in one game to decide everything. Halladay was nails in Game 1 after a rocky first inning, but the line is even thinner in Game 5.

Before the stadium filled up, the Phillies looked primed with another early lead. Five pitches into the game, they had doubled, tripled, singled, and jumped ahead, 2-0. Then Jackson retired 17 of the final 20 batters he faced.

The first two outs in that first inning were crucial. With a 3-2 count to Ryan Howard, Pence dashed for second base. Howard took a pitch he thought was outside for a called strike three. Yadier Molina threw a dart to second, and Pence was caught stealing on a bang-bang play. Pence thought he was safe, and the entire dugout agreed after watching replays.

That only underscored the black hole that is the middle of the Phillies lineup. Their three, four, five, and six hitters are 5 for 46 (.109) in the last three games. None of those hits are for extra bases. They won Game 3 only because of a fateful swing off the bench by Ben Francisco.

Howard is 2 for 15 with six strikeouts in the series. Shane Victorino is 1 for 12 since a three-hit Game 1. Carlos Ruiz and Placido Polanco are a combined 3 for 30. Only Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are hitting with regularity, but no one can score them.

"You have to forget about this one," Gross said, but there was a lot more thinking to do than that.

There was a plane ride for deep thought after dinner Wednesday night. Now the Phillies must hope for an offensive revival - or another Halladay no-hitter - to avoid elimination at home.

"If you don't like to play in Philadelphia, something is wrong with you," Manuel said. "And if we can't get up for Game 5 in the playoffs, then so be it."

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb
at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.