And so it went for the Mets, who died with their pennant-winning runs on base.
"This is very tough," closer Billy Wagner said mere minutes after the Mets had drawn their last breath. "It's hard to look back on a great season when we're going home."
"There's really nothing you can do to get over it," left fielder Cliff Floyd said. "You just have to let it ride itself out."
It'll take a while for the hurt to fade. But when it finally does, with time the medication, a team and its fans will realize and appreciate the summer's accomplishments.
The New York Mets fell short of expectations raised only by a spectacular season of resolve, during which they overcame some nagging hurdles convincingly enough to rule the NL East.
These, after all, were the "That's all we got" Mets. That was the label hung on them by Floyd when key pitching injuries began to riddle their postseason prospects.
Manager Willie Randolph was still riffing on that theme in the wake of the season-ending 3-1 loss to the Cardinals.
"You go with what you have," Randolph said. "This team was successful because we didn't really waste sleep over who was here or who we didn't have."
A strong bullpen and, foremost, a deep, powerful lineup carried the Mets over their own rotation woes, which were considerable and surfaced long before becoming conspicuous in the postseason.
Randolph, with the help of pitching coach Rick Peterson and general manager Omar Minaya, did a remarkable job to earn 97 wins and a powerhouse reputation for a club that really was a tricycle in a race for four-wheelers.
The lineup fit together like a perfect quilt. There were cool veterans and hyper youngsters. Speed was protected by brawn. The club's graybeards with distinctive pasts were willing to accept roles in the present, in the interest of team future.
Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and David Wright comprised the second 100-RBI trio in club history, totaling only six fewer RBIs (346) than the 1999 threesome of Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo.
Jose Reyes' legs and Paul Lo Duca's controlled swing lit the fuse, reborn Jose Valentin helped turn the lineup over, and Endy Chavez provided a crutch for Floyd's weak legs.
But the pitching staff, which began to smudge the blueprint when Victor Zambrano blew out his elbow on May 6, was like brown shoes with a black tuxedo.
With Martinez starting off (toe) and finishing (calf and shoulder) hurt, the Mets' nominal fifth-starter slot had as many names as a phone book: Brian Bannister, Mike Pelfrey, Dave Williams, Alay Soler, Geremi Gonzalez and Jose Lima had to combine for 30 starts -- as many as No. 2 starter Steve Trachsel.
Not long after Orlando Hernandez became the solution, he became part of the problem, felled by a calf injury identical to that of Martinez.
The Mets persevered through all that uncertainty, and clearly did not come up short because of it. John Maine and Oliver Perez started four of their seven NLCS games, and performed admirably in them.
They fell short because some of the guys who shouldered the burden for six months buckled for one week.
"The people in the room, I'm very proud of how we pulled together all year. We all thought we would pull it out at the end, with one of those dramatic wins. Didn't happen."
-- David Wright
"It's difficult, but you've got to live with the good moments and the bad moments," said Beltran, who took a postseason-ending called third strike. "I've had so many great moments, but that was a bad moment I will have to live with forever.
"But I'm proud of my team ... we left everything out there. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough."
Experience has its price, and the Mets had just been gouged. And so they had buyer's remorse.
"When you go out and bust it all year from Spring Training, you're disappointed," Randolph said. "I'm real proud of my guys.
"It stings right now, but it's a good experience for all of us. I think it's a good experience for the young players to go through this type of drama. We fell short, but I think it's going to be something we can all kind of learn and move on to and feel good about the fact that we've come a long way in a short time."
Wright, whose 4-for-25 NLCS had been one of the Mets' quietest, said: "It hurts now, but when we look back, we'll be proud of what we accomplished, and we'll build on this. The experience will help us next year, and for years to come."
It has happened fast for the Mets since Minaya came on board as general manager at the end of a 91-loss 2004 season, then asked Randolph to join the cause five weeks after that.
The Mets broke through .500 (83-79) last season, and broke the NL East's back this season.
"We started a trend last year and started to change the culture of this ballclub, and the idea of how we play the game and the mind-set," Randolph said, "and it's kind of evolved to where we are right now."
"Now" is one step shy of the World Series. That last step is the toughest. Thursday night, the Mets lost their footing but gained their 2007 focus.
"The people in the room," Wright said, looking around a clubhouse where his teammates spoke with upheld chins and clear eyes, "I'm very proud of how we pulled together all year.
"We all thought we would pull it out at the end, with one of those dramatic wins. Didn't happen."