Cardinals’ downfall hard to figure

Friday, October 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:42 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

ST. LOUIS — It can be argued that the St. Louis Cardinals lost the World Series in mid-September, when Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter went down with injuries.

In the space of a week they lost their ace for the season, and their cleanup hitter was never the same after returning from a calf injury.

Manager Tony La Russa refused to make excuses, but the rotation that ran out of gas and the lineup with a hole in the middle played large roles in the Boston Red Sox’ sweeping a team that had led the major leagues with 105 victories.

“What-if thinking, that’s so counterproductive,” La Russa said Thursday as players cleared their lockers at Busch Stadium.

Still, the Cardinals lost four in a row only once in the regular season, and that was when they were coasting at the end of the regular season.

Rolen led the major leagues in RBIs before straining his left calf on Sept. 11. He returned after missing 16 games, in time for the end of the regular season, and had one big hit in the playoffs: his two-run go-ahead home run off Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the NL championship series.

Otherwise, he was a bust, going 12-for-75 after the injury. In the World Series, Rolen was 0-for-15, a symbol of the Cardinals’ stunning lack of production against a Red Sox staff that was not expected to be dominant.

St. Louis batted .190, was 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position and totaled three runs in the final three games. Jim Edmonds was 1-for-15 with no RBIs.

“When you have the aspiration as a little kid of playing in the World Series, throwing the ball up and hitting it, you at least sneak one hit in there in your backyard,” Rolen said.

But he added perspective indicating he won’t let the failure linger: “I’m going to be a father shortly so that will hopefully go well, and maybe someday I’ll tell my little girl that I played in a World Series and didn’t get a hit.

“I think she’ll be all right with that.”

No one felt the sting of the loss more than Carpenter. He won 15 games in a brilliant comeback season after having missed 20 months while recuperating from a pair of shoulder operations. He would have been the team’s top starter in the playoffs had he not been lost with nerve damage to his right biceps on Sept. 18, the day the Cardinals clinched the NL Central.

Without him, only one of the four starters lasted long enough to qualify for a victory in the Series.

Now, Carpenter has to go home to New Hampshire, not far from Boston, and hear all winter about how the Red Sox ended the Curse of the Bambino at the expense of the Cardinals.

“I definitely did not want to be the one going home and listening to everybody talk about how they beat us,” Carpenter said. “It’s a small world at home, and I’m going to hear a lot of it. I don’t want to deal with that.”

The Cardinals head into a shorter than usual offseason facing the usual list of personnel questions. Shortstop Edgar Renteria can be a free agent and re-signing him is one of the team’s top priorities.

Pitcher Matt Morris, the opening day starter the past three seasons but saddled with a staff-high 4.72 ERA this year, also can be a free agent and almost certainly won’t be back. The team has an option on Woody Williams, the de facto No. 1 in the playoffs because of Carpenter’s injury and Morris’ inconsistency, but is likely to try to re-sign him at a cheaper price.

Williams was 11-8, the fewest victories on the rotation, but the Cardinals won 16 of his last 19 regular-season starts and he won twice in the playoffs. He is 38, but wants to pitch at least a few more years and would like to stay with St. Louis where he has enjoyed a career renaissance.

“Most definitely,” Williams said.

One of the rotation openings likely will go to Dan Haren, who impressed the team in spot starts during the regular season and middle relief in the playoffs. Rick Ankiel also could be in the hunt for a starting job after returning from reconstructive elbow surgery in the final month of the season.

Reliever Steve Kline has scheduled surgery for Nov. 11 to repair a partially torn tendon his left index finger, an injury that got him bounced from the World Series roster. He also can be a free agent and believes the team does not want to re-sign him.

One vacancy they won’t have to fill is manager.

La Russa confirmed Thursday that he will be back for a 10th season. Bill DeWitt Jr., the team’s general partner and chairman of the board, said after Wednesday’s Game 4 loss that he considered this La Russa’s best managing feat in St. Louis.

“I thought it was, I really did, and I told him so,” DeWitt said. “I thought he did a wonderful job.”

On the other hand, the Cardinals will have to deal with the hangover that accompanies great expectations coming off one of the best seasons in franchise history, whether or not they were at full strength at the end. Or maybe they don’t. Both after the game and again on Thursday, players had reasoned reactions.

“Whether you lose 100 games a year or win 100 and go to the World Series, that last day of the season it’s like ‘Wow, the season’s over, what do I do now?”‘ Game 4 starter Jason Marquis said. “We’re disappointed the season didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but on the other hand we had a great season and have nothing to hang our heads about.”

Even La Russa was able to joke a bit even though his past two World Series trips have been huge busts, considering his heavily favored Oakland Athletics also got swept in 1990 by the Reds. Rolen’s two dogs roamed the clubhouse and popped into his office a couple of times while he talked to a group of reporters, helping to lighten the mood.

“We’re having a lot more fun than I really want to have today,” La Russa said. “I don’t mean to be enjoying myself.”

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