- Phil Rogers
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ST. LOUIS -- Because of the second-class treatment it was given, with early starting times and small news holes, reporters covering the National League Championship Series said they felt like they'd been assigned to the NIT basketball tournament.
Turns out it was no joke.
Given the way the St. Louis Cardinals were manhandled in the World Series, this might have been too kind of a comparison. It was more like the NCAA play-in game to determine which small-college team gets to play UConn or Duke in the first round -- except that the beating just continued, night after night.
After winning 105 games in the regular season, the most in the majors, the Cardinals advanced to the World Series for the first time in 17 years. They could not have seen what was waiting for them at Fenway Park.
The Cardinals became one of the all-time Series punch lines. They held distinctions far beyond being the 17th team swept.
They were only one of four teams to never lead in any game, joining the 1989 Giants, the '66 Dodgers and the '63 Yankees. They were outscored 24-12 by the Boston Red Sox's self-proclaimed idiots, with nine of their runs coming in the first seven innings of Game 1.
Their margin of defeat wasn't as bad as the pounding Tony La Russa's Oakland Athletics had given San Francisco in the Earthquake Series (32-14), but the level of relentless frustration was worse. The Cardinals trailed after 35 of the 36 innings, including the last 30.
The sixth inning of Game 1, when they rallied for a 7-7 tie, would turn out to be St. Louis' highlight. No wonder La Russa didn't seem to know whether to laugh or cry late Wednesday night when a reporter asked him to sum up the effort of his team for the whole season.
La Russa must have spent two minutes collecting his thoughts. He fiddled with a paper cup, turning it upside down and back up again, closing his eyes and then opening them again, as he tried to find the right words.
"In spring training we thought we had a chance for the ring,'' La Russa finally said. "We had to play good in the regular season, [in a] tough division, [and] we did that. We survived two playoffs, so it's a huge disappointment. It's an outstanding club, one of the neatest clubs to be around in 27 years of managing. It's terrific, but we were short, so it was disappointing.''
While the Cardinals were without ace Chris Carpenter and left-handed reliever Steve Kline, the lineup that had produced an NL-high 5.3 runs per game was intact. You couldn't tell it in the last three games, when it failed to score an earned run in 20 innings pitched by Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe.
Jim Edmonds went into a funk after arguing about balls and strikes with umpire Ed Montague in Game 1, and his bad karma seemed catching. The Cards took wilder swings against Martinez in Game 3 than they had against Schilling in Game 2 and then even wilder swings against Lowe in Game 4 than they had against Martinez.
The at-bat that symbolized their Series came in the fourth inning on Wednesday. Albert Pujols, a guy sometimes compared to Ted Williams, took the weakest of hacks on a two-strike slider from Derek Lowe, who had been left out of Terry Francona's original playoff rotation because of his 5.42 ERA.
"Not seeing this stuff all year ... we were not real comfortable,'' St. Louis hitting coach Mitchell Page said.
That was obvious.
Pujols got five of St. Louis' 23 hits, but did not drive in a single run. Cleanup hitter Scott Rolen and Edmonds were a combined 1-for-30, with both going hitless after Edmonds beat an over-shifted infield with a bunt down the third-base line in the second inning of the opener.
"They basically stayed down in the zone,'' Page said. "They made good pitches, but we missed some pitches, too. The baseball gods weren't with us.''
After Tony Womack's leadoff single, Walker dropped down a bunt. It moved Womack to second. He moved to third when Pujols grounded out to second baseman Mark Bellhorn, but was stranded there when Lowe fielded Rolen's grounder.
Walker had thought he could bunt his way on base.
"With the third baseman over, he was going to push the ball down the line,'' La Russa said. "If a line drive for a single is a good play and gets cheered, then so is a bunt. He got it too much to the pitcher. Shoot, we might as well try something.''
It's tough to argue.
The Cardinals have won 16 pennants, the most by any team other than the Yankees. This was their first trip to the Series since 1987 and they remain in search of their first Series triumph since beating Milwaukee in 1982.
The business of the offseason includes locking up new deals with La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty while deciding how to keep or replace a group of free agents headed by shortstop Edgar Renteria and 15-game winner Matt Morris.
Getting into the playoffs next season will not be easy, not in a division that features Houston and the Cubs. And, as La Russa well knows, making it to the end of the playoff maze is risky business for even the best teams.
The Cardinals had their chance to climb to the top of the mountain, but barely left any footprints to prove they were ever on the slope.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
St. Louis went from 105-game winner to a World Series punch line within four games.