ST. LOUIS -- This wasn't how the St. Louis Cardinals' storybook season was supposed to end.
Wearing patches on both sleeves to honor fallen teammate Darryl Kile and broadcaster Jack Buck, the Cardinals persevered to win the NL Central and then swept the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the first round of the playoffs.
With Kile's 5-year-old son, Kannon, sitting in the dugout, the Cardinals seemed destined to win. They just had too much to play for. Plus, the worst appeared to be over. They'd already gotten past Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
It all collapsed in the NL championship series. The intangibles didn't help as the San Francisco Giants knocked them out of the postseason in five games.
''No matter how bad we want to keep playing, it doesn't matter,'' catcher Mike Matheny said. ''We fell short. Getting past the first round, that's good, but that wasn't our goal.''
The Cardinals batted .278 with runners in scoring position during the regular season but failed in the clutch time and time again during the NLCS, going 3-for-39. Without any timely hitting, they lost a pair of one-run decisions in Games 4 and 5.
A few more hits from Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Tino Martinez, benched for the finale after going 2-for-25 in the postseason, and they might still be playing. There were a lot of stunned looks in the clubhouse after the 2-1 loss in Game 5 on Monday night.
''I'm kind of blank,'' Edmonds said. ''This is a good group and a special team and a special city. The people rallied behind us and we tried to do our best, but we just came up short.''
Manager Tony La Russa took no solace in the team's stirring finish to the regular season, or the impressive first round. What he saw in the NLCS was a team that underperformed.
''They just outplayed us,'' La Russa said. ''However you look at it, the postseason is a failure. We failed.''
If it wasn't one thing, it was another. In Game 1, Matt Morris collapsed. In Game 2, the offense was stymied by Jason Schmidt. In Game 4, the bullpen coughed up two big hits. In Game 5, they wasted a dominant start from Morris by going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
Some Cardinals believed things might have been different had Scott Rolen been available for the NLCS. Rolen sprained his left shoulder in Game 2 against Arizona and the team perhaps optimistically included him on the roster for the second round, but he never progressed beyond indoor workouts.
Rolen, acquired near the trade deadline from the Phillies, had been viewed as the final piece in the championship puzzle. He tied his career highs with 31 homers and 110 RBIs and played Gold Glove-caliber defense.
''He fit in so beautifully,'' said Fred Hanser, one of the team's owners. ''When you have two RBI guys it's one thing and when you have three it's another, but when you have five that's strong medicine. They just couldn't get him back.''
Rolen's replacement, Miguel Cairo, was 9-for-17 in the postseason and had the game-winning hit in Game 2 of the Division Series. So La Russa minimized the loss.
''That's just an excuse,'' he said. ''When they outplayed you in every category, how much is Scott going to change that?''
La Russa also had his share of struggles. He left reliever Rick White in for 2 1-3 innings in Game 4, long enough to give up a two-run game-tying double to J.T. Snow and game-winning two-run home run to Benito Santiago. Playing with a short bench, he appeared unwilling to use his weapons. He put 12 pitchers on the roster, but avoided using Jeff Fassero and Mike Crudale.
Much of the regular season was a trial by fire. Injuries and the sudden, shocking death of Kile forced La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan to use 14 starting pitchers.
The midseason comeback of Andy Benes, who nearly retired in April but became a consistent contributor down the stretch, and the emergence of 28-year-old rookie Jason Simontacchi, an 11-game winner, solidified the situation.
Players are optimistic about the future. J.D. Drew should be himself again after offseason surgery for knee tendinitis, Rolen is signed for eight years, and management is hopeful of keeping the rest of the team intact.
''We have the talent that's going to be all back next year and we plan on doing this thing all over again,'' closer Jason Isringhausen said. ''It's one of the best teams I've ever been a part of and I've been on two other playoff teams.''
None of that means much to La Russa now.
''I don't want to mislead anybody: Our goal was not just to get to the postseason. Our goal was to get to the World Series and win it,'' he said. ''We were going to play till Halloween. This is a bad deal.''
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