Cardinals fall two wins short, but are buoyed by a promising future

BOSTON – The people came for a coronation. They emptied their checking accounts, hocked what they could and headed to Fenway Park for what could only be the best damned baseball celebration on this soil since their great-great grandfathers got in for a buck-and-a-half.

The President was in town. The Celtics opened their season. This was the night the Boston Red Sox would win the World Series, however. The people were sure. Everyone was so sure. So they came here.

That left the St. Louis Cardinals. They’d come for the coup. With their fancy farm system, their smart and relentless ballgame, their decorated rookie pitcher, they’d come for the revolution. On a cool, damp night, they were carried out on those laurels and expectations, 106 wins in, two wins short.

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What was once a baseball-sized hole in the hearts of New Englanders had, over a decade, become a presumption of victory. The Red Sox delivered dutifully. They finished the Cardinals with style, by a 6-1 score, with the in-house DJ – due to the many Cardinals pitching changes – exhausting his playlist, some of it as Cardinals starter Michael Wacha exited 11 outs into the biggest game of his nascent career.

Yadier Molina, the veteran catcher, stopped Wacha after manager Mike Matheny had accepted the ball and before the 22-year-old pitcher could leave the mound. Molina whispered something in his ear. A couple hours later, the message escaped Wacha.

“I think I was just so pissed off at that point,” he said, “I really can’t remember.”

Adam Wainwright had won some games like this in the past, but this October had lost Game 1 and Game 5 to the Red Sox. He found Wacha in the visitors' clubhouse, a small, dank place barely large enough for a young man and his regrets.

“Dude,” he told him, “I’m just telling you right now, you’re amazing. We would not be in this World Series without you.”

Barely a year-and-a-half out of Texas A&M, Wacha had taken four starts previously in these playoffs. He’d won all four. When the fourth inning ended in Game 6, he’d allowed six runs. He’d attacked it differently this time, with more off-speed early in the counts, and fewer of his 95-plus mph fastballs. Still, Shane Victorino doubled home three runs in the third inning off a fastball. And Stephen Drew homered in the fourth inning off a fastball. Wainwright’s words were of little comfort.

“We had guys do things they didn’t know they could do,” Wainwright said. “Nobody’s perfect. He was almost perfect.”

Wacha shook his head. He’d have none of it. Not today. Not for a while.

“It’s very disappointing,” he said. “Everyone in that clubhouse wants that ring. I didn’t want to win it for myself, but for them. I feel like I let the team down.”

And that was the story of the Cardinals on Wednesday night. They’d become the background. For all they’d done until then, for all their fight, and for the amazing ground they’d covered – or, more accurately, hadn’t lost – since the departures of their iconic manager and their best player, they would leave as the guest hardly anyone would remember, and become all but trampled in the after-party. It’s not their fault. The loser almost always is.

“I told them to hold their heads high,” Matheny said. “They have nothing to be ashamed of. We all know that we could come out and play a better game than what we did here, but we did a whole lot more than anybody gave us credit for or expected us to do.”

They’d lost the final three games of the World Series and were out in six. They’d won Game 3 on a last-batter obstruction call, then scored four runs over the next 27 innings. A lineup that had overwhelmed teams with precision at-bats, that set records with its aptitude for hitting with runners in scoring position, went flat. What had been that good for that long and – by pitching exceptionally through most of the postseason – reached the World Series for the fourth time in nine years, had become their frailty. It is the nature of the game they play, and the Red Sox were better. When it ended, and Koji Uehara had finished Matt Carpenter with a split-fingered fastball, and the Red Sox had met happily in the middle of the field, the Cardinals lingered at their dugout rail. Matheny had one foot on the top step, and he shook the hands of a couple of passing umpires. He nodded at the others.

The uniforms change. The venues change. But every year the same scene. And one by one the Cardinals left that rail. They’d won the NL Central, then beaten the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers. They’d re-established who they are, and what they are, and how they do this. They’d produced pitchers like no one else, from a factory out behind Busch Stadium, it seemed. Big, young men, these polished pitchers would take the ball and obey Molina, and it got them to the second-to-last day of October. It would have to do.

They’d come this far for the group, of course. And for themselves. But the Cardinals had made a special case of Carlos Beltran, their 36-year-old outfielder who’d done plenty in his career, but never this. He’ll be a free agent within hours. Before he could consider his alternatives, however, he would experience his first World Series. While it nearly ended in the early innings of Game 1, when he rammed into the right-field wall here and bruised his ribs, Beltran played in every game. He batted a respectable .294, but without an extra-base hit.

Wainwright met him afterward.

“Sorry,” he said.

Beltran presumably waved him off.

“It was great,” Beltran said. “The wait was worth it, being able to do what we did this year as a team. Unfortunately, the offense during the postseason, we couldn’t get it going. … We had some opportunities to play better and we didn’t. Boston, they did it right.”

He said he would go home now, get some sleep, and let the past three games disappear. He said he’d told the Cardinals of his preference for another contract that would allow him to stay.

“I made it clear,” he said, “that I would love to come back. I won’t take anything personal if they don’t.”

He touched the World Series, and there was something to that. The Cardinals had been very good. Heartsick over how close they’d come, they promised themselves they’d return. Their young pitchers can improve. The rest of the organization is healthy. For three games over four days, they simply hadn’t played well. Or at least well enough.

They came and perhaps found something bigger than themselves. In the Red Sox. In this city. In the way the two, together, seem to turn everything into glory or despair and nothing in-between.

“I don’t think so,” Wainwright said. “I just think it was a baseball game.”

The Cardinals lost that, too.