ATLANTA -- Nearly an hour after their historic late-season collapse had been completed with a maddening extra-inning loss, a number of Braves players still seemed to have a look of shock in their eyes.
This was the final day of the regular season. But this was certainly not supposed to be the end of the season for a team that had entered September with an 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race.
This was supposed to be the day when the Braves overcame all that had gone wrong over the previous four weeks by creating the opportunity to play one extra regular-season game to determine whether they would secure that postseason berth that seemed like a given just a few weeks before.
But instead it would be a day that Craig Kimbrel will never forget. The rookie closer's inability to harness his emotions while attempting to protect a one-run ninth inning lead extended the game long enough for Hunter Pence to produce a soft single that proved to be the crushing blow as the Braves suffered a season-ending 4-3, 13-inning loss to the Phillies.
"This is one of the worst feelings I've ever had coming off a baseball field," Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said. "With where we were at in the standings and with the team we had in here, hopefully we all learn from this and get better next year."
As the Braves enter the offseason much sooner than expected, the Cardinals will prepare for the playoff experience they never expected when September arrived. With 23 games remaining, the Braves owned an 8 1/2-game lead over the Cards in the Wild Card race. By the time a wild Wednesday had concluded, St. Louis had won the race that Atlanta had commanded throughout most of the year.
With five consecutive losses to close the season and 18 losses in their past 26 games, the Braves suffered the largest collapse in NL Wild Card race history. It would have qualified as the largest collapse in Wild Card history had the Red Sox not also waved goodbye to their once promising season soon after Atlanta's crash.
"It's very disappointing to come up short," second baseman Dan Uggla said. "But to see how everybody battled in this clubhouse and to see the character of this entire team, we're going to be good for a long time. This is a year, we can use as a learning curve. We had a lot of young kids do a lot of special things this year."
The Braves had held at least a share of first place in the Wild Card dating back to June 8, when they were 34-28.
"When you're in a slump as a team, you find a bunch of different ways to lose," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Bats go silent. You get wild on the mound. You walk in runs. You find different ways to lose and we sure did over the past couple weeks."
With runners on the corners and two outs in the 13th, Pence put an end to Atlanta's season in a painful manner. His broken-bat looping flare off Scott Linebrink landed in no-man's land just beyond first base.
Still, the Braves would have never had to turn to Linebrink had Kimbrel not experienced one of the worst games of an historic rookie season. Admittedly overwhelmed by emotions, the 23-year-old closer threw just 13 of his 29 pitches for strikes and essentially gave the Phillies every opportunity to tie the game in the ninth.
Kimbrel surrendered a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, then issued consecutive one-out walks to set the stage for Chase Utley, who tied the game with a sacrifice fly to left field. This was the young closer's eighth blown save overall and third of the month. He had worked 37 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings before blowing a save against the Cardinals on Sept. 9.
"Everybody in this clubhouse and everybody on this team showed up to play today and gave everything they could to win this game, except for myself," said Kimbrel, who set a Major League rookie record with 46 saves this year. "I didn't pitch to my ability. Part of being a closer is being able to harness your emotions. I didn't do that today and I let the team down."
While the Phillies were able to generate magic in a game that meant nothing to them, the Braves generated next to nothing while facing a group of relievers who would not be considered the elite of the Philadelphia bullpen.
Jones nearly ended the game with a long fly to the warning track with two outs in the 10th, and Martin Prado grounded out with Jason Heyward on third to end the 12th. The inability to deliver the key hit was one of the main reasons why the club had scored two runs or fewer in five of its previous six games.
The absence of Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson from the rotation certainly hurt the Braves. But they could have gained a playoff berth had their offense not batted .195 with runners in scoring position over the final 26 games.
"Nobody is making excuses," Uggla said. "There are a lot of things that could have gone the other way that could have helped us out. A gapper here or there that wasn't caught. But this is the big leagues. There's no excuses. We just got beat."
All seemed to be right for the Braves when Uggla drilled his two-run, third-inning homer off Cole Hamels to provide Tim Hudson a 3-1 lead. Hudson delivered the clutch outing the Braves had expected as he limited the Phillies to two runs in 6 2/3 innings.
But one year after beating the Phils on the regular season's final day to help the Braves clinch the Wild Card, Hudson was among the Braves who were left wondering how things had gone so wrong, so fast.
"Even though this last month was a historic type of slide, I love all of these guys in here and I'm proud of them," Hudson said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.