A 100-win season ended in disappointment for the Cardinals on Wednesday, and it ended earlier than it was supposed to. St. Louis fell two wins short of back-to-back World Series appearances, and six wins from the ultimate goal -- the franchise's first world title in 23 years.
"We all know if this team was full strength, what the outcome probably would have been," said Sanders, who drove in 12 runs in four games before his injury, and none in four games after it. "But for me, I think what sticks out the most is just the heart of players going out there hurt. Granted, things didn't turn out the way we wanted, but to me, I'm thinking about playing hurt [as opposed to] not playing at all. For guys to go out there and show heart, what more can you ask for?"
Walker played in so much pain all year that he announced his retirement after the game. Rolen was never at his best, and didn't play after July 21. Reyes didn't pitch in the postseason, leaving the bullpen thin. Sanders slowed noticeably after hitting the warning track hard.
A few Cardinals played healthy and at a high level all the way through -- the starting pitchers, and of course Albert Pujols. But against a Houston team that had the game's best 1-2-3 starting pitching punch, a hobbled Cardinals team wasn't good enough.
"We had a great year," said Pujols. "We had a good first round. We just didn't get it done this series."
Jim Edmonds and Mark Grudzielanek had tough series at the plate, compounding the physical struggles of Walker and Sanders. And unlike in 2004, when the Cards had the most productive offense in the National League, this year they had a little less wiggle room for players to scuffle.
"If we had not won the division," said manager Tony La Russa, "then I don't think it would say anything anyway because it comes off like excuses. But we were really beat up, and the guys that came in played great. But we got to the playoffs probably healthier than we were in a long time, much like we were in the season.
"It wasn't a health problem. It was an Astros problem."
Still, they showed, even until the end, that they lived up to their manager's mantra: play nine. In Game 5, they staved off elimination with a Pujols home run and brought the series back home. Even in the finale, they cracked out one last base hit in the ninth to bring the crowd to its feet one more time.
That same crowd saluted the club and condemned Busch with a lengthy tribute after the game. One Cardinal after another headed out for a last salute.
"Did we lose or did we win?" marveled Edmonds. "It's something that you've got to see to believe it. You really do. People back home ask me about this place and I tell them, 'You've got to come see it to believe it.' I don't think you can describe the power of these people that come to the game day in and day out, and the support they give you. It really makes you go out there and play harder, play better and basically be a better person just because you know they're watching."
Last season, the Cardinals came out of the World Series knowing they struggled with the bats, but with one major goal in mind: acquiring a top-flight starting pitcher. They essentially added two, picking up Mark Mulder in a trade and having Chris Carpenter healthy for the postseason.
There is only one such obvious need this year. With Walker's retirement and Sanders' pending free agency, the Cards are down a couple of outfielders.
"I think there will be some changes," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "I'm not sure how many or how big a change we'll make. This is a pretty good club. You can't change it too much. But we do have some free agents and some other things we have to address. Tomorrow's meeting is just basically kind of a wrapup. We really won't start our planning and strategy process for another week or so.
"I think we need to sit back and reflect on this year and see where we want to go. But Reggie's a free agent ... So outfield would obviously be an area we'll have to address. We've got a couple free agent pitchers, so we have to look at that, too."
In addition to Walker and Sanders, Grudzielanek is eligible for free agency, meaning 3/8 of the starting lineup could be gone, not to mention subersub-turned-everyday third baseman Abraham Nunez. Matt Morris is a free agent, and the club holds options on Mulder and Jeff Suppan. Reliever Julian Tavarez leads the relievers who could walk.
"I'd like to come back," said Morris, who has never pitched for another Major League team. "It's a business decision, so we'll see what happens."
For now, though, most of the Cardinals weren't thinking too far down the road. They never expected anything short of bringing the World Series back to Busch, and now their season is over.