Updated at: 10/22/2012 11:35 PM
By JOSH DUBOW
(AP) SAN FRANCISCO - Rookie shortstop Pete Kozma moved to his right, only to watch the line drive off Hunter Pence’s broken bat inexplicably change directions when the shattered barrel hit the ball a second and then third time.
Three runs scored on a strange double that just about summed up the final three games of the NL championship series when almost everything went wrong for St. Louis, costing the defending champion Cardinals a return trip to the World Series.
Kyle Lohse failed to make it out of the third inning, the Cardinals’ bats fell into a cold spell at the worst possible time and St. Louis was eliminated from the postseason with a 9-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 on Monday night.
"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."
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.
"We didn’t play as well as we wanted to the last three games," Lohse said. "We put ourselves in a great position but just couldn’t close it out. Tip your hats to those guys over there. They don’t give in. It’s tough. It was a tough series, tough to swallow."
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 Carlos 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 a rocky third inning.
The Giants loaded the bases with nobody out to knock Lohse from the game, and reliever Joe Kelly broke Pence’s bat at the label with a 95 mph fastball. 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.
"The read I got, it was going toward the hole," Kozma said. "I thought he came around it. The ball made like a banana and went up the middle. I just reacted to the ball and had no chance at it."
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.
That brought an end to what had been a remarkable season when the Cardinals made it back to the postseason under first-year manager Mike Matheny despite losing star slugger Albert Pujols to free agency and the retirement of longtime manager Tony La Russa.
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.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)