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Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Magic runs out: Cardinals can't come back again

Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- Instead of altering the NL Championship Series, Albert Pujols' dramatic Game 5 home run simply gave the St. Louis Cardinals a chance to play a goodbye game at Busch Stadium.

Any momentum provided by Pujols' drive was halted by the brilliant pitching of Roy Oswalt and the Houston Astros' bullpen in a 5-1 Game 6 loss on Wednesday night. Pujols' homer, it turned out, was the last big hit by his 100-win team in a season that again failed to deliver on considerable promise.

"Did we give it our best shot? I think we did," manager Tony La Russa said. "We got into this thing to win the World Series, so it's a disappointment."

The dethroned NL champions' dream of erasing last fall's bitter memory, when they were swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, ended two games short. So short, in fact, that the Astros didn't even need Brad Lidge, the goat of Game 5.

As usual, the team's 40-year-old stadium was filled with red-clad faithful. For the final time they filed out, most of them silently, after the Cardinals were mastered by Houston pitching yet again while getting a subpar start from 16-game winner Mark Mulder.

"It was a really great year but it's not how we wanted it to end like this, especially after Albert hit that home run," Mulder said. "We had a lot of momentum coming home. The crowd was into it those first couple of innings and I just didn't make the pitches in the third and the fourth innings."

Many of the fans headed for the exits after Pujols lined out to short for the final out in the eighth. Many others stayed well after the game to serenade their favorites one more time as one after another, they emerged from the clubhouse.

The team wasn't nearly as emotional about the last game at Busch Stadium as its fans, who have been jotting their initials and parting thoughts on pillars outside the stadium for months.

"Time marches on," chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. "We've got a wonderful new facility under construction and it's Busch Stadium, it's just different bricks and mortar."

Oswalt never gave the Cardinals a chance to build a smidgen of momentum, holding them hitless until Yadier Molina's bloop single in the fifth. By that time, St. Louis trailed 3-0.

Even the mighty Pujols, who entered the game batting .447 the last two postseasons against Astros pitching, was powerless. Greeted with a standing ovation and popping flashbulbs in the first, the Cardinals' MVP candidate did not get the ball out of the infield in four at-bats.

A wild and inconsistent Mulder had no chance in his Game 2 rematch against Oswalt, failing to get out of the fifth. The pitcher the Cardinals acquired for just such an occasion let in the game's first run with a wild pitch thrown behind Craig Biggio in the Astros' two-run third, also hung a pitch on Jason Lane's homer in the fourth and had to be rescued with two on and two outs in his final inning.

"You can go back over everything and kick yourself, but there's no point," Mulder said. "I just didn't make the pitches. The fans, the city, they deserved a little bit better effort from me."

Counting the postseason, St. Louis was 1,795-1,427 at the old cookie-cutter model stadium. Busch Stadium faces the wrecking ball soon to make room for a new park that will overlap part of the old.

The Cardinals won 100 games for the second straight season without the dominant lineup of 2004, playing much of the middle portion of the season without four injured regulars. They were banged-up again in the NLCS, totaled six runs in the four losses, and were a sorry 6-for-38 with runners in scoring position.

Pujols' main protection faltered, with Reggie Sanders, Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker all struggling. The Cardinals got their lone run on a hit batter, Molina's bloop single and a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter John Rodriguez off Oswalt in the fifth.

Sanders, the star of the division series with 10 RBI, added a two-run double in Game 1 against the Astros but wasn't himself after an awkward spill at the warning track in Game 2. In three games after returning from neck and lower back injuries, Sanders was 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts.

Walker, who likely will retire due to a persistent neck injury, was 2-for-19 in the NLCS. Edmonds was 4-for-19 with no RBI.

At least one player took a parting shot. Reliever Ray King, inconsistent much of the year while dealing with his father's terminal illness, was not used in the playoffs and he took it personally.

"I'm bitter that out of nine games, I'm pretty much a spectator," King said. "If I can't pitch here, then let me pitch somewhere else."