The Cardinals finally fall … hard

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was supposed to be a dog fight. It wound up being a drubbing.

The San Francisco Giants crushed the St. Louis Cardinals 9-0 in the decisive Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to shock the defending World Series champions and bounce them from the playoffs.

St. Louis had three chances to win one more game to get back to the Fall Classic. They couldn't do it. Couldn't buy a hit with runners in scoring position. Couldn't make pitches in big spots. Couldn't stop the bleeding.

And after the game ended, stunned Cardinals players couldn't believe their season was over.

"It sucks," said shortstop Pete Kozma.

"It's incredibly frustrating," said first baseman Allen Craig.

"I wasn't ready to go home," said Game 7 loser Kyle Lohse.

But home they must go after being flat-out dominated for the third game in a row by San Francisco's local nine. After scoring 24 runs in the first four games of the NLCS, the Cardinals were outscored 20-1 in Games 5, 6, and 7. Twenty-to-one. Now their bats are free to remain in hibernation through the winter.

"You've got to tip your hat to the Giants," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. "They are a damn good baseball team."

Game 7 got off to a decent enough start for St. Louis. After getting thoroughly shut down in Games 5 and 6 by Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, the Cardinals knew going into Monday night's game that they'd have to be more patient, take more pitches, resist the urge to chase bad balls out of the strike zone. They stuck to that game plan in the first two innings, forcing Matt Cain to 46 throw pitches. But they never broke through.

And then everything unraveled.

Lohse took the mound down 2-0 in the bottom of the third and promptly gave up a single to Marco Scutaro and a double to Pablo Sandoval. After walking Buster Posey to load the bases, the Cardinals ace's night was finished.

Knowing his club needed a double play ball, badly, to keep them in the game, manager Mike Matheny brought in 24-year-old righty Joe Kelly from the bullpen to try to induce it. He appeared to do just that when Hunter Pence lined the first pitch he saw toward the shortstop, Kozma. But Pence's bat splintered when it first made contact with the ball, and as he continued his swing the broken bat freakishly struck the ball two more times, changing its trajectory completely. Kozma broke to his right. The ball hooked back to his left and squibbed into center field. The bases cleared. The series was over.

"I had no idea what happened," Kozma said after the game. He couldn't bring himself to watch the replay. When a reporter informed him that the ball Pence hit touched the bat three times, Kozma shook his head and sighed. "Well that would explain the ball movement," he said.

Two batters later with the bases loaded again, Brandon Crawford grounded up the middle to Kozma. But instead of taking the sure out at first, the rookie shortstop threw home -- too late to get Pence. "That was just a bad decision," Kozma said.

The Giants scored five runs in the third inning and pushed their lead to 7-0. The Cardinals never recovered.

Even more frustrating for St. Louis, while Giants ace Matt Cain pitched well -- giving up no runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings -- he clearly didn't have his best stuff.

"I thought Cain was OK, but he can be a lot better than that," said injured Cardinals slugger Lance Berkman, who watched Game 7 from the bench. "I think the lack of offense tonight was more [us] getting down big early. That's a huge psychological burden to overcome."

As Cardinals players sat quietly around a folding table in the middle of the clubhouse eating chicken and noodles with plastic forks, Berkman approached them with words of encouragement.

"I just told them they'd be back," Berkman said. "I feel really good about the group of players this Cardinals organization has. We've got a lot of young guys in here and I think we're set up well."

"He said we'd be fighting for [the NL pennant] for years to come," third baseman David Freese said.

If there's one silver lining for the Cardinals to take with them on their long ride back to St. Louis, it's that. There's a reason they've made it to at least the NLCS in six of the past 11 seasons: Their homegrown talent is relentless. Sixteen of the 25 guys on the Cardinals' playoff roster have played for only one organization. The youngest -- starting pitching uber-prospect Shelby Miller -- turned 22 earlier this month.

And what about Trevor Rosenthal, he of the 100-mph fastball? The flame-throwing right-hander, also 22, had never pitched above low-A ball before this season. On Monday night, Rosenthal dazzled in the do-or-die Game 7, striking out four batters in two shutout innings. With Miller, Rosenthal and Kelly coming into their own, the Cardinals' starting rotation could terrify the rest of the NL for the better part of the next decade.

"In this game, it's always about what's ahead of you and not what's behind you," Mozeliak said. "And that's what we'll look at over the next few weeks."

Losing stinks. There's no way around that. But many of the Cardinals' players are already putting things in perspective. A World Series Championship last year. A wild-card run all the way into Game 7 of the NLCS this year. Not a bad two-season stretch.

"On the flight home, I'm definitely gonna think of all the good things we accomplished this year," Freese said. "And I hope everyone else does too."