A team that soared to an 11 1/2-game division lead in six magical weeks during the summer fell to earth in four days in October. A 5-1 defeat to the Dodgers in Game 3 of their National League Division Series cemented the Cards' postseason fate, a first-round sweep at the hands of Los Angeles. No Cardinals team had gone to the postseason and been held without a single win since 1928.
"I think we felt like we had a team that could do something special, and we fell short," Cards outfielder Matt Holliday said.
Exacerbating the frustration was that so many of the Cardinals' greatest strengths from the regular season were minimized or neutralized against the Dodgers.
Starter Joel Pineiro wasn't sharp on Saturday and lasted just four innings, making it twice in three games that a Cardinals starter didn't live up to his outstanding regular season. In Game 1, ace Chris Carpenter was touched for four runs in five innings and never really got rolling. Adam Wainwright was brilliant in Game 2, but one quality start in three games was not enough.
An offense which had struggled with runners in scoring position earlier in the series stalled out entirely against retread Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla. The Dodgers once again got the timely hits, especially with two outs, and the Cardinals once again did not. St. Louis went 4-for-30 with runners in scoring position for the series. Stars Albert Pujols and Holliday went a combined 5-for-22 with one extra-base hit and two RBIs.
And so a team that thrilled a city for most of the summer will not play again until next spring.
"I don't like the stigma of our club getting swept," manager Tony La Russa said. "We're a better club than that, and the series was more competitive than that. But that's what it is. But today wasn't a real good competition."
It's the first time in franchise history that the Cardinals have been swept in a Division Series or League Championship Series -- that is, the first time a National League opponent swept them in the playoffs. The only previous postseason sweeps of any kind came in the 2004 and 1928 World Series. The Cardinals had won six of their seven previous Division Series trips since the format was introduced in 1995.
And while one play dominated the highlights in Game 2, the story of the series was a roster-wide letdown -- most disappointingly from the greatest areas of regular-season strength.
On Saturday, Pineiro was in trouble from the beginning. Matt Kemp beat out an infield single before Manny Ramirez drilled an RBI double to left-center field. None of Pineiro's first-inning outs came on the ground, an ominous sign for a sinkerballer.
The Redbirds had an opportunity to get the run back, and maybe more, in the bottom half of the inning, but the team's persistent bugaboo throughout the series reared its head early. Ryan Ludwick and Pujols singled with one out, but Holliday hit a weak comebacker for the second out. After Colby Rasmus drew a walk to load the bases, Yadier Molina grounded out, ending the inning.
St. Louis did not threaten again until the outcome was barely in doubt. Padilla retired 17 of the next 18 batters he faced after Rasmus' walk. In Games 1 and 2 at Dodger Stadium, the Cardinals repeatedly put runners on base, only to be unable to get them home. In Game 3, they didn't even create the chances.
"We got some runners on that first game, and couldn't really make any noise," Ludwick said. "I really believe that second game we hit the ball really well. As well as we've hit the ball all year long. We just hit a lot of balls at people. Sometimes that's the way the cookie crumbles. Tonight, we just didn't really get much going. We had that threat early and then it just didn't work out."
Meanwhile, Pineiro capped off his late-season fade with a clunker. He went 2-3 with a 4.98 ERA over his final seven regular-season starts. Counting Saturday night's defeat, St. Louis lost six of Pineiro's final seven starts. And with the right-hander eligible for free agency, they might have been his last seven starts in a Cardinals uniform.
"That's the way things go," Pineiro said. "You have a great year, and then the one bad outing that you have, you struggle like Carp and I did, and it turns everything around. We went out there hard. We gave it our best. I don't think anybody was out there dragging."
After the run in the first, Pineiro breezed through the second inning, looking like he might have caught his stride. But with two outs in the third, he left a 3-1 fastball up in the zone to Andre Ethier, and the Dodgers' No. 3 hitter punished it for a 403-foot, two-run homer. An inning later, Rafael Furcal laced a two-out RBI single for the Dodgers' fourth run.
The Cardinals bullpen held the fort admirably after that, but with a lethargic offense, the four-run deficit felt much larger.
"They pitched well," Holliday said. "Once you get to their bullpen, it's tough. They have a really good bullpen. Our team, as an offense, we couldn't get anything going. We had some good at-bats here and there, but as far as stringing anything together, we had a hard time."
It was the first time in three meetings that the Dodgers won a postseason series against the Cardinals.
"It was surprising," said reliever Kyle McClellan. "I thought we had the team to do it. When you've got those two [Carpenter and Wainwright] at the front of the rotation, and you've got the middle of that lineup, I think we were built for it. It just didn't happen. I think that's all it comes down to."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.