ST. LOUIS -- They came into the World Series riding a wave of superlatives -- the best record in baseball during the regular season, anchored by a lineup with three MVP candidates, all capable of turning around a game in a heartbeat, unbeaten at home in the postseason.
They left the field at Busch Stadium for the last time last night with a much different mind-set, and a different legacy, one that made them a footnote in the record books: the fourth team in World Series history that had not led for one inning of any game in the World Series.
If last night was an evening filled with redemption and rejoicing by the Red Sox following a 3-0 victory for their first championship since 1918, it was a bitter ending to what had started as a sweet season for the Cardinals.
"We started in spring training, we thought we had a chance for the ring," said Cardinal manager Tony La Russa, biting off words as he tried to swallow the disappointment of a complete failure at the end. "We had to play good in the regular season, tough division. We did that. We survived two playoffs, so it's a huge disappointment."
Last night's results were indicative of the entire series for the Cardinals, starting with a leadoff home run by Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon off Cardinal starter Jason Marquis. It was the 19th first-inning run the Cardinals allowed in the postseason and immediately put them in a hole from which they never emerged.
As the game progressed, the Cardinals looked less and less like a team that led the majors during the regular season and more and more like a bunch of extras in a production run by the Red Sox. The middle of the Cardinal lineup, a lineup that included third baseman Scott Rolen who had produced 34 home runs and 124 runs batted in and center fielder Jim Edmonds who had blasted 42 home runs and 111 RBIs -- a staggering 76 home runs and 235 RBIs between them, finished the series a combined 1 for 28, the only hit a bunt by Edmonds in Game 1.
The Cardinals, who couldn't get out of their own way with base-running blunders in Tuesday night's 4-1 loss, played a little bit smarter last night, but still came up short. "Give them credit," said La Russa. "They outplayed us in every category. They deserve a lot of credit. They were ready to play. They outplayed us and outhit us and outpitched us."
The quality of baseball played by the Red Sox drew grudging praise, tinged with jealousy, from the Cardinals.
"What impressed me most is the way they played the game," said Cardinal pitcher Woody Williams. "They play a lot like we do. It seems they never go away and you can see what they did to New York, down, 3-0, and to be in that atmosphere and that kind of competition to come back. It says a lot for a ball club's character."
It was the kind of character the Cardinals had shown in coming back from a three-game-to-two deficit to defeat the Houston Astros in the National League Divisional Series. It was the kind of character they showed, at times, in Game 1, a wild 11-9 affair in which the Cardinals looked most like the team that roared through the National League regular season. But La Russa knew the postseason was different.
"I remember it was pointed out to me when we started the playoffs, the best record doesn't get this far," said La Russa. "So I think the best record indicates that you've had the most working for a six-month season. You get into a short series, where it's five or seven games, and you get a couple of swing games and they go against you and you get beat.
"But there is no doubt in any series, the team that wins the series is the best team."
For six days -- and four games -- that team was the Red Sox and the Cardinals knew it.