Jason Lane's leg was cocked when the throw came into third, and anyone who had watched the St. Louis Cardinals all season -- not just over the course of these playoffs -- could have guessed what would happen next. The ball was just a hair off-line. Cardinals third baseman Abraham Nunez moved to retrieve it. And there was Lane's left knee, whacking Nunez's left leg just above the kneecap.

The Cardinals lost Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, 4-3, to Lane and the Houston Astros Saturday afternoon not on any one play. But those standing in a quiet visitors' clubhouse afterward could virtually hear the creaks from aching joints, the groans from each ailing player. It raises the question: Can this group, as currently assembled and in its present state of health, win three of the next four games to repeat as NL champions, because the list of the ailing includes left fielder Reggie Sanders, right fielder Larry Walker, and now Nunez, who couldn't put any pressure on his left leg as he was helped off the field?

"Wow," Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said, assessing the injuries. "It's going to be tough. We got Reggie hurt. Larry hurt. Now, we got Nunez. I don't know."

Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said that Nunez's knee wasn't twisted, but was merely bruised. "We'll see how he feels tomorrow," La Russa said.

That his loss would be considered important illustrates what the Cardinals have been dealing with all year. After he played parts of eight non-descript seasons as a utility man with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cardinals signed Nunez to a minor league deal in the offseason. But when star Scott Rolen went down in late July before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in August, Nunez became the starting third baseman on baseball's best team. He responded by setting career highs in virtually every offensive category, hitting .285. More importantly, he was a capable replacement for Rolen, a Gold Glover, on defense.

"The thing about Abe is," La Russa said this week, "he's the same every day."

And, immediately, his absence impacted the game. Nunez was replaced by little-used utility man Hector Luna, who bounced between the majors and minors this season. Luna had fielded just 11 chances all year at third base before he stepped into the caldron at Minute Maid Park. The Astros had taken a 3-2 lead on the previous play, Brad Ausmus's single to right on which Lane barreled into third, taking out Nunez.

So, naturally, the next ball put into play, hit by Adam Everett, took one hop toward third, and it was all Luna's. Lane headed for home, blocking the path for Luna to throw. "It's a hard play," Molina said. Yet Luna took aim just to the right of Lane's neck, he said, and hurled it.

"I missed," he said, and he did so badly. The ball sailed to the backstop, an error that allowed Lane to score what eventually became the winning run.

So the Cardinals hobble into Sunday's Game 4, unsure of who will be on the field. Veteran John Mabry played in 18 games at third this year, and he would be an option to replace Nunez. They tried, though, to shrug it all off, because Sanders, Walker and Rolen have all been out for long stretches this year.

"Our lineup's been thin all year," center fielder Jim Edmonds said. "We played without three guys for three or four out of six months. We'll be all right."

Houston's Jason Lane, right, collides with St. Louis third baseman Abraham Nunez in the sixth inning of the NLCS. Nunez left the game with an injured leg and Lane scored the winning run on the next play.