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Cardinals can only learn from tough NLCS defeat Columnist @TracyRingolsby
SAN View Full Game Coverage FRANCISCO -- Matt Holliday has had better weeks.

So have the St. Louis Cardinals.

A season of satisfaction for a team that rebounded from the losses of future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, to retirement, and of the homegrown face of the franchise, Albert Pujols, to the lure of free-agent riches with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, ended with a disappointment.

Up 3-1 against San Francisco in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Cards were unable to come up with that fourth win necessary to advance to the World Series against the American League-champion Detroit Tigers, with the Redbirds joining the 2003 Giants and the 1996 Cardinals as the only teams in NLCS history to take a 3-1 lead and lose the series.

"There is quite a bit to be excited about if you're a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and I want to make sure these guys don't forget how we got here and the character and heart it took to be where we are right now," said first-year manager Mike Matheny, who had never coached, much less managed, before being given the challenge of replacing La Russa. "It wasn't how we scripted it to finish, but it was a great run that these guys need to be very proud of."

The Cards came a long way, but weren't even close to where they wanted to be in the end.

The Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 in the final three games. It ended in a 9-0 Game 7 loss that equaled the fourth-most lopsided Game 7 in a best-of-seven series, ranking behind only St. Louis' losses of 15-0 to Atlanta in the 1996 NLCS and 11-0 to Kansas City in the 1985 World Series, and its 11-0 victory against Detroit in the 1934 World Series.

A rotation that ranked third in the NL during the regular season with a 3.62 ERA came unraveled at crunch time. The starting trio of Lance Lynn, Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse combined to give up 14 runs in 9 2/3 innings over the final three games.

"The starting staff didn't do a good enough job," said Lohse. "We needed to get better starts to give our team a chance."

Largest Game 7 shutouts
Series Winner Loser Score
1996 NLCS Braves Cardinals 15-0
1985 WS Royals Cardinals 11-0
1934 WS Cardinals Tigers 11-0
2012 NLCS Giants Cardinals 9-0
1956 WS Yankees Dodgers 9-0

So much for that late-season surge to hold off the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL's second Wild Card spot. So much for the 6-3 win over the Braves in the win-or-go-home Wild Card showdown. So much for the dramatic five-game survival in the NL Division Series against the Nationals capped off by a 9-7 win in which the Cardinals, trailing, 6-0, at one point, became the first team to overcome a deficit of more than four runs in any deciding postseason game.

"I wasn't ready to go home," said Lohse.

His two-plus-inning, five-run effort in Game 7 belied a year that had seen him go 16-3 in the regular season, win two of his first three postseason starts and allow just one run in seven innings of a start against Washington that St. Louis eventually won, 2-1.

"I felt we were meant to do things, but we ran out of gas," said Lohse.

So while the Giants move on in search of a second World Series championship in three seasons, the Cards head home, looking forward to next year, making sure that the anguish of the last three games don't obscure the feeling of a season well done.

"This was not a fitting end to the season we've had," said Holliday. "Things happen for a reason."

Plenty happened to Holliday, who became a focus in this lineup after the departure of Pujols.

Things like:

• The ire Holliday felt from Giants fans for the slide into second base to break up a double play in Game 2 of the NLCS, resulting in second baseman Marco Scutaro eventually leaving the game, although not until after his two-run single keyed a four-run fourth inning that sent the Giants on their way to a 7-1 victory.

• The 0-2 Matt Cain fastball Holliday felt on his left shoulder leading off the sixth inning Monday night, a possible reminder that all wasn't forgotten about the Scutaro incident.

• The back problems Holliday has battled for some time now that forced him out of Game 6, despite his pleading to stay in the lineup.

• And the hectic three games in St. Louis, where the news was leaked to the public that his mother, Kathy, underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her colon prior to Game 4.

"I figured it would come out at some point," said Holliday. "The extra prayers can't hurt."

For the Cardinals, right now, getting away from the ballpark won't hurt. It will give them time to flush the anguish of the last three games, and look forward to next spring when a sizable chunk of this team will be back.

"Nobody thinks you have a good year unless you win it all," said veteran Lance Berkman, left off the postseason roster because of a balky knee. "What happened [this year], though, is something for these guys to feel good about. One thing about this team is it's young. These guys are going to be around for a few more years."

The Cards have control of the contracts of their roster, other than Lohse and Berkman. They want to feel that what the players experienced in the last three weeks will help that youthful nucleus mature in a hurry.

"We're going to go home disappointed, but we just got beat," said third baseman David Freese. "They are the NL West champions, and they got it done. We go up on them 3-1, but we couldn't get it done.

"Obviously, we are disappointed we are not in the World Series, but on the flight home, I'm going to start thinking about the good things we accomplished. Hopefully, everybody else does, too."

There are, after all, plenty of good things to think about.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Holliday, Kyle Lohse