Cardinals point to reasons why their plans changed

By Joe Strauss/St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

In one corner of the Busch Stadium home clubhouse pending free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse packed his belongings before offering a final hug to those he considered both friends and teammates.

In another corner younger, less affluent talents Allen Craig, Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso prepared for merely a four-month break as their status ascends with their original organization.

First baseman Lance Berkman had ridden the team bus to the San Francisco airport Monday night before diverting to a commercial flight bound for his hometown Houston.

The Cardinals left St. Louis last Saturday as one, anticipating a return to the World Series where they would defend their championship against the Detroit Tigers. Tuesday they began the annual exercise of packing for home, albeit in what most would have considered unthinkable fashion after they grabbed a 3-1 National League championship series lead over the San Francisco Giants six days earlier.

“It’s not the way you want it to end, but it happened,” said center fielder Jay. “We got beat. We didn’t play our best the last three games and they did. They won.”

Monday’s 9-0 loss left manager Mike Matheny to address his players individually within the somber visitors’ clubhouse at AT&T Park. As the rest of the stadium convulsed in celebration, the Cardinals pondered an opportunity that turned into a three-game nightmare in which the Giants outscored them 20-1.

The same team that had rallied for four ninth-inning runs to steal the National League division series from the Washington Nationals became only the third team since 1985 to blow a 3-1 lead in an NLCS.

Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. described the season as “a great run” in the moments after defeat. General manager John Mozeliak offered a clinical assessment that noted the starting rotation’s growing vulnerability.

Hitters admitted they had gotten “pitched” beginning with series’ turning point in Game 5, a shutout started by lefthander Barry Zito, who appeared only because of Madison Bumgarner’s ruinous Game 1 start.

“It hurt to lose like this,” Craig said during Monday’s post mortem. “But I think at this time of year it hurts to lose no matter how it happens. We got very close. But they played better these last three games.”

The series ended symbolically as left fielder Matt Holliday popped out in a driving rain to Giants second baseman and NLCS Most Valuable Player Marco Scutaro. Holliday’s aggressive Game 2 slide into the smallish Scutaro cast the Cardinals and their left fielder as bullies within a seven-game passion play.

Scutaro rallied to hit .500 for the series and had multiple hits in six games.

Bothered that his slide left Scutaro with a strained hip, Holliday sat out Game 6 with lower back spasms after also dealing with his mother’s surgery to address colon cancer on the morning of Game 4.

“They know how to pitch to the ballpark. We did the best we could and it wasn’t good enough,” Holliday said. “The Reds had them that way, too (in the division series). They were just better than us.”

The Cardinals realized during last year’s World Series celebration that they might undergo changes to their core due to first baseman Albert Pujols’ approaching free agency. This team confronts the likely departure of Lohse and Berkman but returns a solid group of younger players that assumed larger roles this postseason.

“We leave here knowing we’re going to be back pretty much intact next spring,” said Jay. “Looking around at the talent we have in here, that’s a good feeling. It wasn’t like this was a one-shot thing for us.”

The Giants neutralized Holliday, third baseman David Freese and Craig for the entire series. Right fielder Carlos Beltran and catcher Yadier Molina enjoyed productive series but rarely appeared in the same inning. The Cardinals produced multiple hits in only four innings within the last three games.

The Cardinals hit only .217 in the series and never really clicked offensively during the postseason. They used six hits to beat the Atlanta Braves in the wild-card playoff before using 29 walks and their Game 5 miracle to take down a nervous Nationals pitching staff that twice held them to three hits in two losses. The Cardinals reached the Nationals for 19 extra-base hits and a .759 on-base-plus slugging percentage. They got to the Giants for only 15 extra-base hits, 14 walks and a .582 OPS in a seven-game series.

A NLCS-record 10 unearned runs allowed and a rotation that offered only one quality start during each round conspired for Monday’s bad outcome.

The Giants, supposedly the less combustible offense, managed five innings of four runs or more. The Cardinals constructed one such inning and marked in only one of their last 28.

“I’m convinced we all went up there focused. But it’s easy enough to say the Giants deserved to be in the World Series, absolutely,” Freese said.

If Zito’s performance in Game 5 turned the series, Monday’s third inning cemented it.

An inning after Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford robbed Lohse of a two-run single, Craig split the left-center field gap with what appeared to be a two-run double.

“I was positive the ball was through when it came off the bat,” Craig said. “Every ball I can remember hitting like that has gone for extra bases.” But this time left fielder Gregor Blanco was shaded toward center field and made an extended, running catch.

The game collapsed upon Lohse and his defense during a five-run rally in the bottom of the inning. A broken-bat line drive seemingly changed direction on shortstop Pete Kozma, becoming a two-run double that scored a third run on Jay’s misplay.

“You watch things like that — you watch these close things that could go either way — and they all keep going their way, that’s not a good thing,” said utility player Matt Carpenter. “It goes back to momentum. When you’re on a roll like the Giants, it seems like everything goes their way. A couple plays can change the game and that’s what happened.”