Mike Matheny again leads Cardinals deep into postseason, but no titles yet

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ST. LOUIS — Mike Matheny has led the Cardinals deep into October all three seasons since replacing Tony La Russa as manager. When St. Louis falls short each year, he bears the weight of expectations.

An injury to Yadier Molina, shaky starting pitching by Adam Wainwright, John Lackey and Shelby Miller, a lack of clutch hitting in the middle of the batting order and defensive gaffes led to a five-game loss to San Francisco in the NL Championship Series.

"It wasn't our best ball," reliever Randy Choate said Friday as a handful of players cleaned out lockers at Busch Stadium. "It's always easy to second-guess."

And Matheny is sure to hear a lot of that this winter after bringing Michael Wacha into the ninth inning of a tied Game 5 in San Francisco. Soon after that, Travis Ishikawa hit a three-run homer to win it Thursday night.

Reliever Pat Neshek, who surrendered a tying homer to pinch-hitter Michael Morse in the eighth inning, said the mood in the losing clubhouse was "just kind of confused."

"Everybody in here thinks we're the better team, and we just wonder what the heck happened," Neshek said.

Choate ended one game with a wild throw for an error. First baseman Matt Adams had two costly mistakes in another.

"I don't want to throw a ball down the right-field line, and Mike doesn't want to make a managerial mistake," Choate said.

For the third straight year, the Cardinals finished with a three-game losing streak.

Since the seven-game win over Texas in the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals wasted a 3-1 lead against the Giants in the 2012 NLCS, lost to Boston in a six-game World Series last year and now this.

"It's disappointing to come clean out your stuff," utilityman Daniel Descalso said. "When it ends, it always happens fast."

St. Louis finished the regular season with baseball's 11th-highest payroll at $120 million. For now, there's frustration over roster composition and decision.

Wacha, who missed two months because of a shoulder injury, made his first postseason appeared Thursday and allowed Ishikawa's pennant-winning homer.

"If we win that game," Choate said, "everybody's saying what a brilliant move it was."

Matheny told Wacha earlier in the day he might need him, and the pitcher had been throwing bullpens the past few weeks without problems. After the game, Matheny told Wacha, a breakout rookie star last October, that he'd put him in a tough spot.

"He said it, but you know, I've pitched in the postseason before. I've pitched in some tough innings in some hostile environments," Wacha said. "I was ready for it, I just wasn't able to throw strikes."

Earlier in the NLCS, general manager John Mozeliak said the team might need to come up with a plan to better regulate Wainwright's workload. Counting the postseason, he has thrown 519 2-3 innings the last two years.

"Clearly in Adam's case, being a veteran and with his status on the team, we haven't had to pull in the reins like we would with other pitchers," Mozeliak said. "Given everything he's done and taking the law of averages, yeah, we probably do need to think about that."

Wainwright, the NL All-Star starter, was 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA during the regular season, including 5-0 in September. In both the division series opener against the Dodgers and Game 1 against the Giants, he failed to go five innings.

Wainwright recaptured his form in Game 5 with seven stingy innings and said he had no issue about getting lifted after 97 pitches. Before pitching the seventh, he'd told Matheny he had one more inning in him.

"I was running low on gas," Wainwright said. "I think he made the right call."

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