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Tearful conclusion for relentless Cardinals

NL pennant winners were determined and dedicated all season

BOSTON -- There were tears dripping into the beers (Budweiser products, naturally) being nursed by several Cardinals in the cramped visitors' confines at Fenway Park in the aftermath of a 6-1 loss in Game 6 on Wednesday night.

For all but one team on October's stage, this is how it ends. And no amount of focus on the future -- one that undoubtedly looks bright -- was going to replace the pain of the ending, even for the St. Louis roster's youngest members.

"It's very disappointing," Michael Wacha said. "Everyone on this club wants that ring. I didn't want to win it for myself. I wanted to win it for these guys on this clubhouse who have been working all year, working their tail off all year."

But the fact that Wacha, a 22-year-old rookie who made just nine regular-season starts, was standing there dissecting his performance in Game 6 of the World Series tells us so much about the year and how it unfolded.

The Cards won a National League-best 97 games, and not because they loaded up their roster with high-priced acquisitions or because they took advantage of a weak division or because they were inordinately fortunate in the health department.

They won because they were deep and determined and dedicated, all qualities that allowed them to claim the franchise's second NL pennant in three years and fourth of the last decade.

"Tonight, you're disappointed," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But when you take the long view, it looks good for the Cardinals."

Not long ago, it didn't look very good for the Cardinals at all.

In 2012, the Cards erased the post-Pujols-dropoff narrative (not to mention the narratives about losing manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan) by playing their way to a Game 7 in the NL Championship Series.

Lack of six-cess
The Cardinals fell to 6-8 in Game 6 of a World Series
Year Opponent Game 6 Series result
2013 Red Sox 6-1 L Red Sox in 6
2011 Rangers 10-9 W Cardinals in 7
1987 Twins 11-5 L Twins in 7
1985 Royals 2-1 L Royals in 7
1982 Brewers 13-1 W Cardinals in 7
1968 Tigers 13-1 L Tigers in 7
1967 Red Sox 8-4 L Cardinals in 7
1964 Yankees 8-3 L Cardinals in 7
1946 Red Sox 4-1 W Cardinals in 7
1944 Browns 3-1 W Cardinals in 6
1934 Tigers 4-3 W Cardinals in 7
1931 Athletics 8-1 L Cardinals in 7
1930 Athletics 7-1 L Athletics in 6
1926 Yankees 10-2 W Cardinals in 7

But 2013 presented several additional challenges that had to be overcome. Before the first pitch of the season was thrown, the Cards learned they would be without the services of co-ace Chris Carpenter (who had worked so hard in the wake of surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome to return to the club at the end of '12) and shortstop Rafael Furcal. Additionally, they knew starter Jaime Garcia was pitching on borrowed time with a shoulder injury that, sure enough, required surgery in May. And this was all after losing Kyle Lohse -- statistically, their best pitcher in 2012 -- in free agency.

Combine the Carpenter, Lohse and Garcia absences with the regression from Jake Westbrook, and it would have been awfully difficult to assume the Cards would wind up posting the second-best starters' ERA (3.42) in baseball this season.

That they did is a credit to the strides Adam Wainwright made in his second season post-Tommy John surgery. He re-established himself as an ace, and he set a tone that was followed by the youngsters -- Shelby Miller (who was one of the best stories in baseball in the first half), Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and, of course, Wacha.

It was a credit to Mozeliak and the front office and player development staffs that the Cards continually had the arms to account for whatever absences or adversity afflicted not only the rotation but the bullpen, which lost closer Jason Motte to elbow surgery in the first half and saw the wheels fall off for replacement closer Edward Mujica in September.

A wealth of young arms -- Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness -- stepped up there, too.

"Plenty of things we had to overcome," second-year manager Mike Matheny said. "And they did it in a style that represented the organization well, the way they played and didn't back off one second, of the way they prepared. It was a relentless team, and I think that's a way to label them."

That's as good a label as any, particularly as it pertains to the offense.

It wasn't just that veterans Carlos Beltran (.830 OPS), Yadier Molina (.836) and Matt Holliday (.879) built upon their impressive résumés. The Cards also saw Matt Carpenter assume the leadoff spot and put together an extraordinary season (.392 OBP), they saw Allen Craig, in his age-28 season, continue to establish himself as one of the game's elite hitters, and they got invaluable output from Matt Adams off the bench, particularly when Craig injured his foot in early September and missed the remainder of the regular season and two rounds of October.

Of course, the Cards' greatest offensive strength was the unique ability to come through in the clutch. Their .330 average with runners in scoring position broke a record held by the 1950 Red Sox (.312) and allowed the Cards to improve their overall run production from 2012 despite a 21-percent drop in home runs.

So, yes, the word "relentless" works.

Now, the Cards, who will face some uncertainty with Beltran entering free agency, hope to be equally relentless in the future.

Thanks to Wacha and Miller and Rosenthal and Martinez and the others, the Cards feel good about their future, even if the pain of Game 6 and the rest of this World Series will linger.

"We found out a lot about a lot of our young players," Holliday said. "They really stepped up and pitched and played at an elite level in big situations. I think we've got a lot of talent coming back. I think they've got a decision in the front office with some of our guys, but we have a lot of young players that are really, really talented."

That was the encouraging aspect of this second-place showing on the World Series stage. But as encouraging as it was, tears -- and beers -- still flowed.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter