SAN FRANCISCO -- One win away from returning to defend their 2011 World Series championship, the Cardinals instead return to St. Louis one win short.
The Cards had three chances to knock off the Giants and ascend as the last National League team standing. But undone by shaky starting pitching, a porous defense and an absent offense, the Cardinals watched their 2012 season come to an abrupt end after three straight minimally competitive games against San Francisco.
Monday night's 9-0 rout at AT&T Park in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series reserved the Giants a Fall Classic meeting with the Tigers. For the Cards, it initiates a long winter, one in which those within the organization will have to reflect on how it all crumbled.
"There's a level of frustration over these last three games, because it doesn't reflect how well we played baseball over the last four weeks," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But to sit here and dwell on that, I just don't think does this season justice. These guys have a lot to be proud of, and from an organizational standpoint, we feel very good about what happened this year."
The Giants' five-run third inning capped their series comeback, making them just the third team to advance to the World Series after falling behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven NLCS. St. Louis now has the dubious distinction of twice losing such leads.
It also happened to the Cardinals against Atlanta back in 1996, Tony La Russa's first year as St. Louis' manager.
Monday's defeat ends the rookie campaign for La Russa's successor, Mike Matheny, who led the Cards to an 88-win season, a victory in the first NL Wild Card game and one of the biggest come-from-behind wins in postseason history to advance past Washington.
"What I've learned is we've got a special group of players over on our side who have overcome a lot of obstacles and who did a lot of things that people didn't think they could do," Matheny said. "I just want to make sure that these guys don't forget how we got here and the character and the heart that it took to be where we are right now."
Yet on the brink of eliminating the Giants, the Cardinals unraveled. Needing just one win in three games, St. Louis was outscored 20-1 and received a cumulative 9 2/3 innings from its three starting pitchers. Game 7 starter Kyle Lohse lasted only two-plus, plucked from what is likely his last start as a Cardinal with his team trailing, 2-0, the bases full and no outs in the third.
Matheny, who had been slow to employ his bullpen earlier in the series, dispatched Joe Kelly to help. From there, though hardly Kelly's fault, the inning rapidly fell apart.
It started with a grounder off Hunter Pence's shattered bat that, after striking the bat three times, started left and sliced right, fooling shortstop Pete Kozma and sending two runners home. A third scored when center fielder Jon Jay couldn't field the hit cleanly.
"Just some bad luck there," Kelly said. "It sucks that it happened in the seventh game of this series."
An infield single and walk filled the bases again before Kozma fell into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The once-darling of the Cardinals' postseason run showed his inexperience first with a mental mistake, throwing home for an attempted force out instead of taking the sure out at first. The run scored.
Asked afterward why he didn't throw to first, Kozma answered: "That was probably my better play."
Two batters later, Kozma's high flip to second baseman Daniel Descalso hurt the Cards' chances of turning an inning-ending double play.
It took three pitchers and 35 pitches to finish the 11-batter inning, and the damage done was too extensive to overcome. The Cardinals trailed by seven, and continued deficiencies with runners in scoring position did not allow St. Louis to make a dent in the deficit.
"If you look at the [three] games, we made a lot of mistakes and they didn't make any mistakes," Carlos Beltran said. "They were able to put things together -- offense, defense and pitching -- and we couldn't do that."
"Tonight just seemed to be our night," Pence said. "We got all the breaks. You could have played this game 100 times and it could have gone 50-50. The breaks were on our side."
After going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position in their Game 5 and 6 losses, the Cardinals went hitless in 11 chances on Monday. Several of those opportunities came early, too, before the game got out of hand.
Allen Craig left Beltran stranded at second base in the first. The Cards opened the next inning with a leadoff single and a walk, then moved the lead runner to third with a groundout. Yet, Giants starter Matt Cain answered by striking out Kozma and getting Lohse to line out.
Cain's pitch count sat at 46 after the inning, but the Cardinals never took advantage of his so-so stuff. Cain ended up handing the Giants 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
"When you score one run in three games, you're not going to have a good chance to win," Descalso said. "You can talk about anything else, but if you don't score, you're not going to win ballgames. They didn't make many mistakes, but it's on us to make adjustments and score runs. We just weren't able to do it."
Cain's outing was the type of start St. Louis had hoped its own right-hander would give in his second elimination start of the postseason. Instead, Lohse, who had given up only four earned runs in his first 18 1/3 innings this postseason, was charged with five.
Set to become a free agent next month, the outing sours what had been a career year for Lohse.
"I got myself in trouble early, and there's not room for error in a game like this," Lohse said. "It just happened to be the worst possible moment."
The Cardinals' loss on Monday snaps their streak of six straight wins in elimination games, dating back to the start of the 2011 postseason. San Francisco, on the other hand, has reeled off six such victories in this postseason alone.
Which is why the Giants will open the World Series at home on Wednesday.
"This one hurts for sure, because we understood last year how cool it is to play deep into October," David Freese said. "Now we're going to go home and watch the Giants. But that's a great group over there. Heck of a team. Good luck to those guys."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.