CINCINNATI -- An uncharacteristic loss didn't stop St. Louis from improving its chances in the playoffs.
Despite the loss, the NL Central champions clinched home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs when Atlanta lost earlier in the day. The Cardinals are trying to make it back to the World Series, where they were swept by Boston last year.
"It's not that big of a deal," said starter Matt Morris, who gave up one hit in six innings. "With two weeks left or however much time, we're not going to jump up and down over that. We knew the goal was attainable."
Morris was on the verge of snapping his four-game losing streak, the longest of his career, and the Cardinals were within five outs of their 97th victory when their bullpen let a 2-1 lead get away.
Ryan Freel doubled for the Reds' only hit against Morris. Freel doubled again off Brad Thompson for the Reds' second hit in the eighth to start the comeback.
Felipe Lopez's single off Ray King (4-4) tied it, and the Reds loaded the bases with one out. The Cardinals tried to turn a double play on Austin Kearns' grounder up the middle, but the relay by shortstop David Eckstein pulled first baseman Albert Pujols off the bag, letting in the go-ahead run. Encarnacion wrapped it up with his three-run double off Julian Tavares.
The Reds lead the NL with 206 homers, relying on them too much at times for the bulk of their offense. They ground this one out by just putting the ball in play.
"We played all-around good baseball today," Freel said. "That's what happens when you do the little things. This is something to build on. We played small-ball today. The little things have to happen for us to win."
Todd Coffey (4-0) pitched one inning for the Reds, who are 10-22 against St. Louis over the last two seasons.
The bullpen's failure prevented Morris from becoming the fourth Cardinals starter to reach 15 wins, joining Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Jeff Suppan. The Cardinals' rotation leads the majors with 80 wins, four more than last year.
Morris gave up Ken Griffey Jr.'s 500th homer at Busch Stadium on June 20, 2004. Before the game Thursday, Griffey decided to end his season because of a sore foot. He'll have minor knee surgery next week.
King, a left-hander who usually pitches late in games, also got the loss in the first game of the series. He hit a batter and gave up two hits in the seventh inning of Cincinnati's 6-5 victory on Tuesday.
"It was rough," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's not good enough. He's working on it, but the reality is you either do or you don't. He's got to figure it out. He's got to get back to what he did for us when he was efficient."
Left-hander Brandon Claussen failed in his attempt to become the first Reds pitcher to get 11 wins. He gave up Yadier Molina's RBI single in the second inning and Jim Edmonds' two-out, run-scoring double in the fifth. Claussen escaped further damage by retiring Reggie Sanders on a grounder with the bases loaded in the fifth.
Sanders, who returned from a broken bone in his leg on Sept. 12, played two games in the series and went 0-for-8.
Pujols went 0-for-3, dropping his average to .335, two points behind the Cubs' Derrek Lee for the NL lead.
As planned, OF Larry Walker got a cortisone shot for the herniated disc in his neck -- his fourth shot this season. Walker is expected to be back in the lineup on Tuesday. Walker missed 26 games because of the neck problem before returning on Aug. 20. ... With his fourth strikeout, Morris passed Jesse Haines and moved into fourth on the team's career list. ... Molina is 8-for-11 with runners in scoring position in September. ... Reds 1B Sean Casey is still sidelined by a concussion suffered last Friday in a collision at first base. "He is from time to time with physical activity getting some dizziness and loss of balance," trainer Mark Mann said. "He has yet to perform any baseball activity."