A special season in St. Louis -- one that featured a Major League-most 97 wins and the franchise's 18th National League pennant -- ended Wednesday night in Game 6, two victories shy of the desired conclusion. The Red Sox set off a city-wide celebration with a 6-1 win over the Cardinals in front of 38,447 at Fenway Park, giving Boston the opportunity to savor a World Series clincher at home for the first time since 1918.
The Cards could merely watch, and many of them did, lining the top step of the dugout while the Red Sox spilled onto the field to join closer Koji Uehara, who had just sealed Boston's eighth World Series championship with a strikeout of Matt Carpenter.
"One [team] is going to lose, and we ended up being on the losing [side]," said Carlos Beltran, whose aspirations of a World Series ring remain unfulfilled. "We didn't play good baseball. At the end of the day, that's not the team that we know we can be."
That sentiment was widely shared. The Cardinals credited the Red Sox on a hard-fought Series, yes, and spoke of how well this team appears set up for repeat deep postseason runs, but this was a club also largely disappointed by its Fall Classic showing. Players felt that Boston never saw the full identity of a team that, in particular, had been so adept at run production for six months.
A club that led the league in runs scored during the regular season batted .224 and scored 14 runs in six World Series games. In 17 postseason games, the Cards hit .215.
"I imagine there is some randomness to that, but we did face some really good pitching since October began," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I also think that when things start to not go your way, you start to press a little bit. Unfortunately, you combine great pitching, pressing and the wanting-to-do-more factor, and it just didn't work out."
As a result, it is the Red Sox who can boast of being baseball's first three-time champion this century. As for the Cardinals, who endured a significant travel delay getting to Boston on Tuesday, they head home earlier than planned. They endured a holdup at Fenway Park, too, due to crowd control issues on the nearby roadways.
Before the group departed, manager Mike Matheny gathered them together with the insistence that each keep his head high.
"They have nothing to be ashamed of," Matheny said. "We all know that we could come out and play a better game than we did here, but we did a whole lot more than anybody gave us credit for or expected us to do. There are a lot of things that they can look on in a negative way, but this isn't the time for it. They have to be very proud of how they represented themselves, each other and this organization."
There is no question that when the sting eventually subsides, the Cardinals can look back on 2013 and find plenty of positives. A team that lost its ace, shortstop and closer before Opening Day found other stars. Those surprise emergences helped lead the club to its first NL Central title since 2009 and sets the organization up to remain regular postseason participants for years.
Rookie Shelby Miller won 15 games. Carpenter became an NL MVP Award candidate in his first year as a second baseman and leadoff hitter. Allen Craig thrived as a cleanup hitter and excelled in run-scoring spots.
Yadier Molina continued to show himself as complete a player as there is in the game. Young relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness emerged as the backbone of the bullpen. And, of course, there was Wacha, whose near no-hitter during the final days of the regular season hinted at the October dominance that no one could have expected would follow.
"I think we found a 1A as far as aces go, with he and [Adam Wainwright]," said Matt Holliday. "He's pitched like an ace."
Less than two years removed from watching St. Louis win a World Series while he completed college coursework, Wacha had one of the best postseason runs by a rookie pitcher. He pitched the Cardinals out of Pittsburgh with an elimination-game win and followed that up by outdueling the likely soon-to-be NL Cy Young Award winner, Clayton Kershaw, twice to get the Cards out of the NL Championship Series. Wacha secured St. Louis' first win of the World Series with a win in Boston.
Without Wacha's contributions leading up to Wednesday, it's unlikely the Cardinals would have even advanced to meet the Red Sox.
"We are extremely impressed and proud of what Wacha has done," David Freese said. "He's a part of history with what he's all about this month, and he should be extremely proud. He's a huge reason we got to this point."
Perhaps that is what Molina reminded Wacha as the right-hander took his first steps toward the visitors' dugout after handing Matheny the ball in the fourth inning, his team already trailing, 4-0. Molina blocked the pitcher, held his jersey, refusing to let Wacha finish that walk until he said a few words.
Asked afterward about the conversation, Wacha said he was too mad at himself to absorb his catcher's words.
"It's very disappointing," said Wacha, who finished 4-1 this postseason. "Everyone on this club wants that ring. I didn't want to win it for myself. I wanted to win it for these guys in this clubhouse who have been working all year, working their tail off all year. Whenever I have a poor outing like that, it hurts even worse. I feel like I just let the team down. It's not a very good feeling, that's for sure."
The Cardinals' chances of forcing a Game 7 slipped in the third before being squashed in the fourth. After allowing three runs in his first 29 postseason innings, Wacha served up as many on Shane Victorino's third-inning swing. Boston had loaded the bases with the help of the Cards, who chose to intentionally walk the hot-hitting David Ortiz with a runner on second and one out. After a strikeout of Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes was hit by a pitch.
Victorino followed by drilling a 93-mph fastball off the Green Monster. It cleared the bases and was the first hit Wacha had allowed with a runner in scoring position in more than a month.
"To get these kinds of moments, it's just what it's all about," said Victorino, who made his return to the lineup after missing the last two games due to back tightness. "I'm very fortunate to be able to come here, come up in that spot again tonight, bases loaded, open the game up a little bit. But we knew it was a tough task. Tip my hat to the Cardinals, they gave us that Series that we thought it was going to be, and it was just nice to be on the winning side."
The game would unravel further an inning later. Stephen Drew, whose biggest postseason contribution at the plate to date had been a walk, opened the inning with a homer. After allowing a double and a two-out intentional walk to Ortiz, Wacha's night -- and rookie season -- was over. His 3 2/3-inning performance was the shortest by a St. Louis starter in 17 postseason games.
Lance Lynn entered and allowed the two inherited runners to score.
The Cardinals, uncharacteristically quiet on offense for most of the postseason, were not short on opportunities. But again, they lacked timely execution. A team that made its mark during the regular season by having exceptional success with runners in scoring position was hampered by its inability to come through in those spots in Game 6.
"They did a good job pitching us, they really did," said Carpenter, who had three of St. Louis' nine hits on Wednesday. "They played better than we did. That's why they won. That pitching staff is tough. Tonight we out-hit them, I think, but we just couldn't get that one big hit with runners on.''
The pileup of missed chances started in the second, when, after consecutive leadoff singles, Matt Adams, David Freese and Jon Jay -- a trio that went 9-for-59 in the World Series -- could not advance either baserunner. A double play thwarted any momentum in the third. Two runners were stranded in the fourth, another two in the fifth.
It wasn't until the seventh that the Redbirds recorded their first hit with a runner in scoring position. Beltran, who may have just played his final game as a Cardinal, delivered the RBI single to end the shutout.
The Cardinals' last and best chance to put any doubt of the impending conclusion in the minds of Bostonians ended when Craig grounded out with the bases loaded to end the top of the seventh. In total, the Cards went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Game 6 and 9-for-42 in the World Series.
"I feel like we had some good at-bats and hit some balls hard. It just didn't work out," Craig said. "The playoffs are a small sample size, but you look at the numbers over the course of the entire season, and it's pretty remarkable. I think we had a lot of good at-bats. It just didn't happen for us."
It was a step forward from 2012, a season that ended with three consecutive losses in the NLCS, but remained a step short of the goal set on the first day of Spring Training in February.
"It's hard to find any positives right now," Daniel Descalso said. "When you get to the World Series, it's to win it, not look for any moral victories or look at what we did in the past. It's tough. It hurts to see them celebrating out there. But hopefully we learn from this and that we come back and are in the same spot next year."