St. Louis Cardinals
Redbirds left feeling blue
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Shawn Clarke - MLB Contributor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The best-of-seven NLCS lasted five games, but St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will tell you it was a dogfight for both ballclubs.

Matheny's Cardinals were denied at the turnstiles of entering a third World Series appearance in the last four years with Thursday night's heartbreaking 6-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants in the bottom of the ninth inning.

"It felt like a dogfight, and I think it's good for the game of baseball," Matheny said. "We're trying to win games but in retrospect you see that that's the kind of series I think people are expecting to see in the playoffs. I think the Giants, even though we only snuck out one, I think they knew they were in a fight."

Some fans may argue watching balls sail out of the park is more entertaining, but others were treated to competitive baseball in this year's NLCS. There were no homers hit in San Francisco's 3-0 victory in Game 1, but the Cardinals belted four in a 5-4 win in Game 2, including Kolten Wong's game-winner in the bottom of the ninth.

Randal Grichuk hit the lone homer for St. Louis in Game 3 and Cardinals relief pitcher Randy Choate allowed the winning run to score in the bottom of the 10th on a throwing error to first base. The Cardinals never recovered after that and dropped the next two games. Wong went deep in a 6-4 loss in Game 4 after St. Louis blew a 4-3 lead, and homers by Matt Adams and Tony Cruz weren't enough in Thursday's series-ending setback.

Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha came out of the bullpen in a crucial situation during the ninth inning. Wacha, the 2013 NLCS MVP against Los Angeles, was limited to 19 starts in the regular season and compiled a 5-6 mark with a 3.20 earned run average. He surrendered a leadoff single to Pablo Sandoval and walked Brandon Belt one out later. Then, left-handed hitter Travis Ishikawa drilled a 2-0 offering just over the wall in right to send San Francisco back to the World Series.

"I was looking fastball," Ishikawa said of Wacha's pitch. "I knew that he didn't want to get behind 3-0, (with the) chance of walking the bases loaded. I was just trying to be aggressive."

The Giants were very aggressive in capturing their third World Series berth in the last five years and have won their last two trips to the Fall Classic. Much like the Cardinals in past postseason series, the Giants used unlikely heroes such as Ishikawa, Michael Morse and Joe Panik to keep the season alive.

The Cardinals intended to make a second straight World Series appearance and couldn't pull it off.

Matheny stood by his decision to use Wacha because the bullpen was short.

"I put him in a tough place without giving him much work lately. That's on me," Matheny said. "He's a star. I can't wait to watch him pitch again when he's healthy and watch over a full season what he's going to do. I like having him out there. I'm not ever afraid to get him on the mound."

Closer Trevor Rosenthal was on hold for a possible save opportunity and Matheny could have gone with Carlos Martinez, Choate or Seth Maness. He opted for Wacha because he has confidence in the right-hander against lefty hitters. The plan backfired when Ishikawa sent the AT&T Park crowd into a frenzy.

St. Louis, which won 90 games in the regular season and has finished first or second in the NL Central each of the past six seasons, blew a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning when Morse hit a pinch-hit, game-tying solo home run to left field off Pat Neshek.

Neshek took over for what Matheny described as a "done" Adam Wainwright, who lasted seven innings and left the game with a one-run lead. Wainwright wasn't himself this postseason and was apparently bothered by an elbow issue he claimed was more of a mechanics problem than physical. He was 0-1 in three postseason starts with a 5.63 earned run average. His ERA never went higher than three in the regular season, as he posted a 20-9 record and a 2.38 ERA.

Matheny was asked if it was tough pulling Wainwright after his seven strong innings Thursday.

"Not at all, he was done," Matheny said. "Even going to him in six you could see he had worked hard, been very good. He was terrific, but he was done."

Wainwright's only mistake was a two-run homer by Panik in the third inning.

"The Panik pitch he hit out, it was really a pretty good pitch," Wainwright said. "It was in off the plate, and he made a very good swing. Baseball players occasionally will make good swings on balls. Aside from the pitch he hit out, I was sharp most of the day."

It was easily Wainwright's best performance of October, and now with the offseason upon the Cardinals, the right-hander and the rest of the club can rest up before training resumes for next year. The Cardinals had a 4.25 earned run average in the postseason and their bullpen put up a 4.13 ERA.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers lost to the Cardinals, 3-1, in the NLDS because Clayton Kershaw failed to carry over his impressive regular season into the playoffs. Wainwright was too little, too late on the big stage as well and could have made it easier on St. Louis had he been at full strength.

St. Louis' big bats were active in the postseason to the tune of 15 home runs, which accounted for 21 of the team's 34 runs. The Cardinals batted .235 in the playoffs and were last in the National League in homers in the regular season (105). Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta came up small in the playoffs after leading the Cardinals in most offensive categories over a 162-game stretch.

Would the results have been different with a healthy Yadier Molina? Probably not because the Giants caught a wave of momentum, and also luck, at the right time to set up a World Series date with the Kansas City Royals. It would have been nice to see a "Show Me State" rematch of the 1985 World Series between the Cards and Royals, but the baseball Gods had other ideas.

It's tough to go out like that after all the Cardinals endured throughout the regular season with Milwaukee collapsing and the battles against Pittsburgh for NL Central supremacy. Cincinnati dropped off in its quest for a division crown and the Cardinals took their chances while the iron was hot.

"There's no question that everybody in this room is hurting right now," Cards third baseman Matt Carpenter said. "But at the end of the day, when you look at what we were able to accomplish with the adversity that we had, some of the injuries, battling all the way to win the division and get us to this point, there's a lot to be proud of. It's going to probably take a while to let that sink in and appreciate what we were able to accomplish. Right now it does hurt."

Matheny said the Cardinals should be proud of what they accomplished and not hang their heads. He admires the club's resiliency and fight, and how it made no excuses even though there were plenty to be made such as injuries and ineffectiveness from a few players. Matheny's had nothing but success and gets the most out of his players in his time in the Gateway City.

Will Matheny ever get over the hump and win a World Series? Maybe. Tony La Russa did it before he retired in 2011 and Matheny has plenty of years ahead of him to accomplish the feat whether it's in St. Louis or not. Right now he has the best chance to win with this roster.

The Cardinals may be down at the moment, and rightfully so. They'll welcome back many familiar faces for spring training in 2015, when the doors swing open on what should be another promising season.

So don't close the arches just yet for St. Louis because these types of runs into October are going to continue over the next few years.

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