Magic runs out: Cardinals can't come back again

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
"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."