SAN FRANCISCO -- It was the mirror image of recent postseason experiences for the Cardinals, and that was no fun at all. A team that had gotten used to digging out from deep holes instead fell from great heights in the National League Championship Series.
The Cards held a 3-1 series lead, at home, going into Game 5 of the NLCS. They were facing a man, in Barry Zito, who seemed to be a terrible match for their skills. Three days later, they were sitting in stunned silence in the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park.
A team that always seemed ahead, even when it was behind, had been eliminated. And it was the result of breakdowns in all facets of the game, from offense to defense to pitching. When you're outscored 20-1 in three games, it's not just one thing.
It started, though, with the starters -- as it so often does. Game 5 starter Lance Lynn had a repeat of his Game 1 start, with three breezy innings followed by a rugged fourth. Chris Carpenter simply couldn't locate in Game 6, and he was done after four innings. And Kyle Lohse, so steady all year long, was finished after six outs in Game 7.
The three starters pitched a total of 9 2/3 innings, allowing 14 runs (11 earned). Some of it may have been fatigue (in Lynn's case), some a lack of midseason sharpness (Carpenter), and sometimes it just happens (Lohse). Regardless of the reason, Cardinals starters were ineffective over the last three games. Even a ferocious offense, operating at full capacity, isn't likely to overcome that.
"I think as a whole, over the year, we've done a good job," Lohse said. "It's a shame the last couple games we didn't get the job done. We just didn't do it. There's nothing else you can point at, other than we needed to give our team a better start, give us a chance to put some runs up. And instead, I gave up the runs early and put us in a big hole."
Meanwhile, when the starters did dig holes, that ferocious offense couldn't bail them out. What had been the NL's most potent lineup for most of the season hit a bump at the worst possible time. But in Games 5 and 7, the Cards had offensive chances early. They just didn't convert them.
Against Zito in Game 5, they put men on second and third with none out in the second, and squandered a leadoff double in the fourth. In Game 7, they had two on and one out in the second and leadoff singles in the third and fourth as well, but couldn't turn them into runs. It seemed after those chances went by the board that Cardinals hitters strained to create additional opportunities, with Giants starters carving them up as the games went on. St. Louis' hitters seemed to get away from their usual exemplary strike-zone judgment, chasing pitches they would normally lay off.
"I think they pitched well," said David Freese. "I think they had a great plan. [Catcher Buster] Posey's very smart back there. ... They were grooving. When you expand the zone a little bit, it's going to hurt you. You break it down, it affected our ability to score runs."
And then there were the defensive foibles, which weren't necessarily ubiquitous but were certainly costly. The Cards committed four errors over the final three games of the series, most notably some very damaging ones by rookie shortstop Pete Kozma. St. Louis' defenders didn't do enough to help their pitchers out, and vice versa, as the slide deepened over the three games.
Finally, of course, a great deal of the "blame" for the defeat should actually be credit. The Giants played exceptionally well over the final three games, as plenty of Cardinals acknowledged. San Francisco's starters turned in excellent games. The Giants' lineup produced plenty of hits at essential times. And San Francisco's defenders made some huge plays. Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you just get beaten.
In this case, it was some of both.
"Things are never black and white," said Allen Craig. "Obviously, they played great, and we didn't play great. But it's somewhere in the middle, I think. There's definitely things we didn't do to put ourselves in position to win, and, obviously, their starting pitching was really good. They got timely hits, and we didn't."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.