Cardinals' downfall began in September -

Cardinals' downfall began in September

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By Belo Story2 By Belo Story2

Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals got a boost from a couple of solid midseason acquisitions and wrapped up the NL Central with a week left in the regular season.

They never regained their edge.

St. Louis was the first National League team to clinch a playoff spot and the first to be eliminated in the postseason. The Cardinals lost 5-1 to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, completing a sweep in the division series.

"I think we felt like we had a team that could do something special and we just fell short," Matt Holliday said.

General manager John Mozeliak made a couple of shrewd moves to help St. Louis win the division, acquiring third baseman Mark DeRosa, outfielder Matt Holliday and infielder Julio Lugo in trades and signing veteran pitcher John Smoltz in August.

On Aug. 6, the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs were in a virtual tie for the Central lead. A month later, St. Louis was 11 1/2 up and the division was all but finished.

But the Cardinals stumbled down the stretch and looked listless against Los Angeles.

St. Louis lost 14 of its final 21 regular-season games, including a 1-6 finish after clinching the division with a win at Colorado on Sept. 26. The poor showing did more than slow momentum -- it cost the Cardinals a shot at the NL's best record and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The club's deep lineup scored three runs or fewer in 15 of the final 30 games and in all three playoff games. But Cardinals players didn't feel like the early clinch caused the team to let up.

"No, we didn't lose our edge, we just didn't play well enough," Holliday said.

"Definitely not," outfielder Ryan Ludwick said. "Everyone in here comes to the yard ready to play every day. I'll take this group, any day until the day I die."

Yet consider the power outage from the middle of the order. Ludwick, who hit 37 homers last season, hit 22 this season and just six after July 25. Holliday had 24 homers, but just one regular-season drive after Sept. 8.

Even Pujols, favored to win his third MVP award after hitting .327 with 47 homers and 135 RBIs, had no longballs after Sept. 9.

The hitting woes continued in the playoffs.

Holliday's Game 2 solo shot was the only homer for St. Louis, and the Cardinals were 4 for 30 (.133) with runners in scoring position. Pujols was 3 for 10 in the three games, but didn't have an extra-base hit and drove in just one run. Holliday was 2 for 12 with just one RBI.

When the Cardinals did get hits, they usually didn't cash in -- 28 players were left on base in the first-round series.

"A couple of things go our way and maybe it's a different series," Holliday said.

Among those things was Holliday's drop of what should have been a game-ending soft liner in Game 2 that kept the Dodgers alive. Closer Ryan Franklin couldn't work around the error, giving up the tying and winning runs.

The Cardinals figure to be in contention again next season if Holliday is re-signed, but that's not a given since he'll draw big-money interest as a free agent. DeRosa and Game 3 loser Joel Pineiro are also free agents.

And so is the manager. After 14 seasons, eight playoff appearances, two pennants and a world championship in St. Louis, Tony La Russa is not under contract for 2010.

"The sad part is that there's going to be guys from this team that are not back," DeRosa said. "We'll see what happens. That's the last thing on my mind now."

For the disappointed Cardinals, the bitter end of the 2009 season makes looking ahead difficult.

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