BOSTON -- The St. Louis Cardinals will continue to serve as a model of continuity when they report to spring training in February. Lou Brock and Red Schoendienst will roam the premises in Jupiter, Fla., the young players will wear their socks with professionalism, and Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday will impart all the right lessons about work ethic, the value of tradition and the importance of playing baseball the right way. The Cardinal Way.
Between now and then, the Cardinals will inhabit that vast winter wasteland that separates regret and anticipation. They've joined the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers as vanquished obstacles on the Boston Red Sox's beard-tugging baseball fantasy tour.
It became evident by the fourth inning Wednesday night that the Cardinals were not going to achieve something "legendary,'' as Wainwright had suggested when they returned to Boston looking to win Games 6 and 7 of the World Series at Fenway Park. When Shane Victorino and the Red Sox beat up on Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn to take an early six-run lead, the Cardinals were destined to endure five innings of anticlimax wrapped in David Ortiz "M-V-P'' chants, Victorino walk-up music and, of course, "Sweet Caroline.''
After Koji Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter to complete a 6-1 Red Sox victory and send tremors through Fenway Park and all of New England, the Cardinals lingered on the dugout rail, then retired to the utility closet that passes for a visiting clubhouse at Fenway. While rookies Kolten Wong and Matt Adams sat on a couch with vacant looks on their faces, other players quietly ate or headed out to a makeshift podium to do postgame media interviews.
As a team, the Cardinals struggled to come to grips with a wonderful season that was punctuated by a disappointing ending. It produced a hollow feeling that will serve as motivation moving forward, if only because they'll do everything in their power to avoid reliving it.
"The one thing said in [the clubhouse] was, 'Remember how this feels,'" second baseman Carpenter said. "I know this is something everybody will remember when we get after it in spring training. We'll think about this as we look forward to the future, because it's not a good feeling.''
Infielder Daniel Descalso opted for a slightly earthier description.
"We did a lot of good things this year,'' Descalso said, "and I'm sure as time goes on, we'll recognize that. But right now it sucks to get here and lose.''
It was, in many respects, a terrific season for baseball in St. Louis. The Cardinals overcame injuries to starters Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and closer Jason Motte to rank fifth in the National League with a 3.42 ERA. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Adams and Seth Maness were impact rookies. Carpenter led the National League with 199 hits, and Wainwright won 19 games and ranked first in the majors with 241 2/3 innings pitched.
The Cardinals outlasted Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to win 97 games and capture the NL Central, and summoned enough big moments to win a pennant. They needed a heroic effort from Wacha in Game 4 to outlast Pittsburgh in the NL Division Series, and forced Clayton Kershaw to throw 48 pitches in a single inning in a 9-0 victory in the National League Championship Series finale.
But in the end, the Cardinals' offense deserted them against the Red Sox. During the regular season, the Cardinals led the majors with a .330 batting average with runners in scoring position; against Boston, they hit .214 (9-for-42). The same lineup that led the NL with 783 runs scored produced only 14 runs in six games against Jon Lester, John Lackey and friends.
Before the World Series, a National League scout observed, "I think St. Louis' hitters do a better job of leaving their egos in the dugout and cutting down their swings than any group in baseball.'' Then the Red Sox showed up, and the Cardinals spent a lot of time looking dazed and confused.
The Series featured numerous emotional swings for St. Louis. Carlos Beltran banged into the bullpen wall and injured his ribs in the opener, only to make an inspirational comeback in Game 2. Then Allen Craig, playing on a bad foot, came off the bench to contribute a big double off Uehara and score the winning run on a bizarre obstruction call in Game 3. Matt Carpenter called the performance "Kirk Gibson-esque.''
Wainwright, the Cardinals' ace, pitched poorly by his standards in an 8-1 loss in the Series opener, and was outdueled by Lester in the pivotal Game 5.
"I take some responsibility in us losing the series,'' Wainwright said. "We lost four games and I lost two of them, and that's the simple math. I could have pitched better, but I also know that I did everything I could.''
In the end, it fell to the amazing Wacha to try to bail out the Cardinals again, but he couldn't quite oblige. He left a fastball over the plate to Victorino for a three-run double and threw 76 pitches before departing in the fourth inning. After Wacha addressed the cameras from outside the St. Louis clubhouse afterward, he received a loud ovation from the friends and family members in the team's traveling party.
"It's very disappointing,'' Wacha said. "I know everyone on this club wants that ring. I didn't want to win it for myself as much as these guys who've been working their tails off all year. Whenever you have a poor outing like I did tonight, it hurts even worse. It feels like you let the team down.''
Inevitably, the attention now turns to offseason planning and a handful of big decisions on general manager John Mozeliak's agenda. Third baseman David Freese was a massive disappointment this year, and there are rumblings that the Cardinals will shop him, move Carpenter to third and plug Wong in at second base. The Cardinals need a shortstop upgrade over Pete Kozma, who logged a .548 OPS in 143 games, and are likely to consider improvements over Jon Jay in center field. Oscar Taveras, St. Louis' top prospect, missed much of the Triple-A season because of injuries and might have to begin next season in the minors.
The Cardinals also have to decide how intently they'll push to re-sign Beltran, who is coming off a fine year at age 36 and should attract considerable interest as a free agent. If Beltran decides he'd like to continue his Hall of Fame push with an American League team, the Yankees and several other teams could jump into the mix.
"Right now, I'm just gonna go home and see how everything goes,'' Beltran said. "I'm a free agent. I've got to listen to everybody and make a decision based on the opportunity to play in the postseason.''
As Mozeliak pointed out, this year marked another successful step in the Cardinals' mission to be competitive with talent that was drafted, signed and developed by the organization. The Cardinals had 17 homegrown players on their World Series roster, and a lot of teams are naturally envious of St. Louis' collection of young power arms -- from Wacha and Miller to Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez.
Wainwright, one of the more insightful ballplayers in the game, was 24 years old when he struck out Detroit's Brandon Inge for the final out of the 2006 World Series. Now he's 32, a two-time All-Star who has come back from Tommy John surgery, and he's the one trying to pass along some veteran perspective to his younger teammates.
"I was just talking to Joe Kelly, and I told him, 'There are only two teams in baseball that got to do what we did,'" Wainwright said. "We got to play in a World Series, and some players play their whole career and never get to do that. Carlos Beltran played 16 years and he just got his first opportunity to play in one.
"We have a ton of players in this group who got to share in that and have that good positive experience going forward. These moments are something you can dig deep for and look back on your whole career. I know I've drawn on those moments from my rookie year my whole career, and now these guys will get to do the same thing.''
It has been a hectic few days for the Cardinals. They spent seven hours Tuesday in St. Louis on an airport tarmac in a delayed team charter plane with their wives and families, enduring the wait with good humor, movies and snacks for the kids. Then they arrived in Boston flush with optimism, only to see it evaporate in a barrage of missed opportunities.
As the Cardinals flew back home in time to spend Halloween in St. Louis, the lingering image on their minds was the sight of the Boston players celebrating in the Fenway Park infield. It will help fuel them and keep them hungry through a long winter of what-ifs.