SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The offense stopped hitting, the starting pitchers couldn’t even make it to the fifth inning and the St. Louis Cardinals kicked the ball around in the field.
Throw in a quirky, broken-bat grounder that inexplicably changed directions at a most inopportune time and it all added up a crushing postseason collapse.
After two postseasons of being a team that refused to be eliminated, the Cardinals were unable to close out San Francisco on three straight tries, losing 9-0 to the Giants in Game 7 of the NL championship series Monday night.
“We made a lot of mistakes and they didn’t make any,” outfielder Carlos Beltran said. “They took advantage of those. They were able to put things together, offense, pitching, defense, and we couldn’t do that. I think that was the difference.”
Along with that odd play in the third inning that still had the Cardinals shaking their heads in disbelief in the losing clubhouse.
The Giants led 2-0 at the time and had knocked out Kyle Lohse by loading the bases with no outs. Reliever Joe Kelly broke Pence’s bat at the label with a 95 mph fastball and rookie shortstop Pete Kozma moved to his right to field a possible double-play ball.
But the shattered barrel hit the ball two more times, putting an odd spin on the ball that sent it slicing in another direction and into left-center, fooling Kozma on the play.
“Pete moved to his right and all of a sudden the ball was to his left,” outfielder Matt Holliday said. “It’s hard to field a ball when a guy hits it three times.”
Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval scored easily on the double and Buster Posey raced home from first to make it 5-0 when center fielder Jon Jay bobbled the ball for an error. The Giants tacked on two more runs in the inning, providing a deficit too big even for the comeback Cardinals to overcome.
After breaking out to a 3-1 series lead, the Cardinals were outscored 20-1 the rest of the series in a collapse reminiscent of the one this franchise endured in the 1996 NLCS when Atlanta outscored St. Louis 32-1 in the final three games.
The Cardinals batted .190 with 27 strikeouts in the three losses. They also made four errors, were 1 for 21 with runners in scoring position and allowed Giants pitchers to drive in three runs — or two more than their entire lineup produced — to become the 12th team to blow a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series.
“Not a lot went right for us the last three games,” second baseman Daniel Descalso said. “It’s tough to win when you score once in three ballgames. They just outplayed us all three games.”
The latest loss ended a record-tying streak of six straight St. Louis victories in winner-take-all games. That included four wins in the past two seasons, including Game 7 of the 2011 World Series against Texas and the comeback from 6-0 down in Game 5 of the division series against Washington.
It also denied Beltran his first trip to the World Series. Beltran, one of baseball’s greatest postseason performers with 14 career playoff homers, fell agonizingly short once again, losing in Game 7 of the NLCS for the third time with three different teams: Houston, New York and St. Louis.
He lost to the Cardinals in his first two trips and couldn’t get there playing for St. Louis either. He had one hit Monday night and stole a base — his record 11th in the postseason without being caught — but it wasn’t nearly enough.
“There’s a lot of players that don’t make it to the World Series, so they shouldn’t feel sorry about me,” Beltran said. “I was trying to do the best I could to get there and it didn’t happen.”
Lohse allowed one run in the first inning and then came up to bat in the biggest spot of the game for the Cardinals. With runners on second and third and two outs in the second, Lohse hit a line drive that looked as if it would reach the outfield to give St. Louis the lead.
But shortstop Brandon Crawford made a leaping grab to rob Lohse and the hole quickly got bigger. Lohse allowed an RBI single to fellow pitcher Matt Cain in the second and couldn’t retire a single batter in the five-run third.
That brought an end to what had been a remarkable season during which the Cardinals made it back to the postseason under first-year manager Mike Matheny despite losing star slugger Albert Pujols to free agency and longtime manager Tony La Russa to retirement.
St. Louis won 12 of its final 16 games to earn the second NL wild card on the second-to-last day of the season, then won 6-3 in a winner-take-all playoff at Atlanta to reach the division series. The Cardinals advanced to the NLCS with that memorable four-run ninth inning in Washington that stunned the Nationals.
“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,” Matheny said.