An agonising one-run defeat in a Dunedin thriller left Wellington needing victory in Christchurch tomorrow to ensure their domestic Twenty20 playoff spot.
Senior players Grant Elliott (70) and James Franklin (68 not out) got the Firebirds within touching distance of a remarkable chase for 205 to beat defending champions Otago last night.
After Elliott was caught behind off the third-last delivery of the match from youngster Jacob Duffy, Wellington needed three off the final two balls but import Graham Napier could only nudge a leg bye to leave them stranded on 203-4.
Otago now hold top spot and are in the box seat for automatic qualification for next week's final, something the Firebirds had in their grasp in the replay of last year's decider.
Wellington need to compose themselves quickly ahead of their final round-robin match against Canterbury tomorrow. Top of the table on net run rate before yesterday's matches, the Firebirds slipped to third and are in the thick of a five-team race to finish in the top three and make the playoffs.
Defeat tomorrow could end their campaign, a cruel blow after they looked likely to conjure a stunning victory at University Oval.
When experienced internationals Elliott and Franklin fire at the same time, you would expect Wellington to get home.
The pair plundered 137 off 11.1 overs for the fourth wicket, with Elliott clubbing 70 off 42 balls and Franklin an unbeaten 68 off 37.
The pair hit seven sixes between them but the skipper was stranded at the non-striker's end for much of the final over.
When Michael Papps was removed, Wellington were 65-3 in the ninth over with next to no hope.
Otago's all-international top four gave the hosts a royal chance of victory after Franklin sent them in to bat and they posted 204-3.
Test opener Hamish Rutherford (79 off 44) and Neil Broom (47 off 40) gave them a flyer as Dane Hutchinson (0-69) suffered and Napier (1-41) also struggled.
Spinners Jeetan Patel and Luke Woodcock slowed the rate slightly but with big-hitting Ryan ten Doeschate (45 not out off 18) finishing strongly, a Wellington win looked a tall order.
Not many teams chase down 200-plus in T20 but the Firebirds had already done that this season - against Auckland - so would have backed themselves. In the end they were one boundary away so this defeat will hurt.
In Auckland, veteran all-rounder Scott Styris led Northern Districts to a 29-run over Auckland to keep the Knights right in contention.
Styris contributed with bat and ball, hitting five sixes in his knock of 48 off 18 balls as Northern posted 180-7 at Eden Park's outer oval.
Then with his medium pacers he took the big wickets of Colin Munro and Colin de Grandhomme, ending with 2-23 as a powerful Auckland side were restricted to 151-9.
- Fairfax Media