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As title defense ends, Cards can hold heads high

SAN View Full Game Coverage FRANCISCO -- The immediate image of the Cardinals on Monday night was their disastrous third inning, which included five Giants runs, at least two defensive miscues and one Hunter Pence hit that took a most unfortunate right turn toward the outfield.

The lasting image of these Cards will be different.

It will be of a team that lost a legendary manager (Tony La Russa) to retirement, the face of its franchise (Albert Pujols) to free agency and was missing three mainstays (Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal) for significant stretches of the season because of injuries. Yet St. Louis made another deep run into October, one that took the club to within a win of returning to the World Series before the Cardinals dropped Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, a 9-0 loss that made the long view much harder to see.

For the seventh time since 2000, the Cards made it to the NLCS. For the third time, that NLCS went to a decisive seventh game. This time, the Redbirds did not make it through.

So Berkman, a free agent after the World Series, gathered players in the clubhouse moments after the final out to deliver a message.

"I just told them they would be back," Berkman said. "I really feel good about the group of players that the Cardinals organization has. There are a lot of young guys in here, so I feel like they are set up well for the next several years."

Manager Mike Matheny had his own say.

"What I've learned is that we've got a special group of players over on our side, who have overcome a lot of obstacles and who did a lot of things that people didn't think they could do," Matheny said. "There's quite a bit to be excited about if you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and I wanted to make sure these guys don't forget how we got here and the character and the heart that it took to be where we are right now.

"It wasn't how we scripted it to finish, but it was certainly a great run that these guys need to be very proud of."

Monday's loss snapped the Cardinals' six-game winning streak in winner-take-all games, a run that began with Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS against Berkman's Astros and continued through the first two rounds of this postseason, when the Cards beat the Braves in the Wild Card game, then came back from a 6-0 deficit in Game 5 of the NL Division Series to beat the Nationals.

In the middle, of course, was Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, a Cardinals win over the Rangers that meant they entered 2012 as world champions.

"Coming off a World Series title, coming into this season and wanting to get there again, obviously we fell short, but I think everybody's going to go home with their chin up and their head held high," said 2011 World Series hero David Freese. "I'm proud of each teammate that went out there and busted their tail. It stinks, obviously, not getting to the World Series. But we're very proud of what we accomplished this year."

There were times throughout the year when it was difficult to fathom St. Louis winning the NL's second Wild Card and making it this far.

The Cards reported to Spring Training with one top starter (Adam Wainwright) facing questions about his return from Tommy John surgery and another (Carpenter) dealing with numbness in his right arm. The Carpenter issue proved by far the most serious. He finally underwent surgery in July, in which doctors removed a rib and two muscles in his neck to relieve the nerve issue causing his problems.

At the time, the procedure was thought to be season-ending.

The Cardinals' issues continued into August, when Berkman, the 2011 NL Comeback Player of the Year who went into the season expected to help cover the loss of Pujols, needed a second surgical fix to the right knee he injured in April. Berkman was limited to 32 games this season after playing 145 last season.

Then the Cards lost Furcal to an injured right elbow, his throwing arm, on Aug. 30 -- amid a stretch in which St. Louis lost 13 of 18 games and fell into a tie with the Dodgers for the second NL Wild Card.

But the Cardinals did down the stretch what they had done all season -- they covered their losses. Allen Craig batted better than .300 and delivered 71 of his career-best 92 RBIs as the Redbirds' first baseman. Upstart Pete Kozma covered for Furcal, delivering the go-ahead runs in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals.

And all season, other Cards pitchers covered for Carpenter while the right-hander planned his gutsy return. Kyle Lohse stepped up as a No. 1 starter in a contract year. Lance Lynn made the All-Star Game and won 18 games in his first season as a big league starter. Joe Kelly made his first 16 Major League starts before moving to the bullpen upon Carpenter's return.

In October, the Cardinals found themselves back in the postseason, only to fall just short of a return to the World Series.

"You want to finish what you start, and obviously we didn't do that," Carpenter said. "But there are a lot of positives going on. Some of the kids got experience. We had a nice year, but these guys [the Giants] played better than we did the last three days."

Carpenter views the Cards as stocked with what he called "quality dudes" capable of making another deep run in 2013. It probably will not include free-agent-to-be Berkman, who did say Monday that he was open to playing another season if he finds the right offer.

Berkman figures St. Louis will be a contender in his absence.

"This team persevered through a lot," Berkman said. "I guess nobody thinks they have a good year unless they win it all, but I think this is something guys can feel good about. The one thing about this team is it's young, and they're going to be back. This Cardinals team is not going anywhere."

St. Louis Cardinals, Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal, Matt Holliday, Joe Kelly, Kyle Lohse