Manager Mike Maheny gave Matt Holliday a final hug as the Cardinals came off the field for the final time on Sunday. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

The irony of what happened Sunday at Busch Stadium was the fact that the Cardinals won, reaching 10 games over .500 for the first time this season, and it didn’t matter.

Getting there in game 162 on the final day of the season was a story of too little too late, and as a result, the Cardinals ended the year by winning their final game for the first time since 2011, but instead of celebrating, they will be home in October during the playoffs for the first time in six years.

The Cardinals came into the game knowing they needed help from the Dodgers if they were going to extend their season for at least one more day, even if they defeated the Pirates. They did that, 10-4, getting six runs in the seventh inning to break a 4-4 tie.

By the time Adam Wainwright threw his third pitch of the game, the Giants already had a 2-0 lead over Los Angeles, getting an early start on what would end up a 7-1 win. The final out of that game came at 5:11 p.m. St. Louis time, ending the Cardinals’ season before they came to bat in the middle of the eighth inning.

“That’s the danger when you get down to this and it’s not in our hands anymore,” said manager Mike Matheny.

The Cardinals’ fate likely was sealed much earlier, however. They spent the last six days trailing the Giants by one game in the wild card race, and could never catch them. Even when they won their last four games of the year, so did the team from San Francisco, their longest winning streak since July 10, and they will be the one heading to New York to play the Mets on Wednesday night in the wild-card game.

“You just can’t believe you don’t have another chance at it,” Wainwright said. “That’s the sad thing, we don’t have one more chance. We could have done something just like in 2006 if we had given ourselves a little better chance.”

Prior to the final week, the Cardinals had a checkered season, always thinking they were about to go on a good run, but never doing so. Whether it was baserunning or defensive miscues, or poor performances from either their starting pitchers or relievers, or an offense that hit the second most homers in franchise history but left too many runners on base in crucial situations, there seemed to always be something holding them back. For the first time since 1999, they had a losing record at home, and lost more games at home than in any year since 1990.

Nine times before Sunday they had a chance to get 10 games over .500, and they went 0-9 in those games.

Matheny and the players said the time for a thorough reflection of the season will come later; trying to do so just minutes after it ended was too soon.

“I think if you went to the ‘what if’s,’ which game was the one, I would be doing myself and these guys a disservice,” Matheny said. “There’s probably more games that we stole late than ones that we gave away. I think that could be said about this team probably better than any other team in the game. We went and took things away that were probably losses for a lot of teams.

“With that being said, to go back and beat yourself up about which ones slipped through the cracks, I don’t think that’s fair.”

There are only four players on the roster who had this experience before, cleaning out their lockers and packing their belongings into boxes just minutes after the end of the regular-season. Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia were the only players left who were here in 2010.

“Missing the playoffs by one game, that’s hard to swallow,” Wainwright said. “There are different ways we could have won a lot of games. I don’t know how many times I could have won games I didn’t, when I should have pitched better.

“Everytime we got rolling a little bit we’d have a couple of game hiccups to put us back almost where we started. That’s the regret we’ll have, knowing we could have played a lot better baseball this season and been in the playoffs.”

After their last hope of playing beyond Sunday was exhausted, the only piece of business left was to allow the fans to give a final salute to Holliday, who it appears will not be back with the Cardinals next season.

“I didn’t have a master plan,” Matheny said. “Really what instigated that was the fans. I knew I wasn’t going to hit him today because his hand was swollen after yesterday, but as the fans kept going and you could see how badly they at least wanted to see him, we had to figure out how (to do it).”

At the start of the ninth inning, Holliday took the field replacing Brandon Moss in left field. As he ran to his position he was alone on the field as the rest of the team remained, standing in front of the dugout and applauding to let Holliday have that solidarity moment.

Holliday motioned for the rest of the team to take their positions, which they finally did, and then Tommy Pham ran out to left field and Holliday returned to the dugout before the inning began.

“It was great,” Holliday said. “I didn’t even think about such an idea. I’m grateful to Mike for doing that. It was really cool. It gets pretty emotional thinking about some of the things that have happened, but I couldn’t have asked for a better last couple of days.”

Where Holliday plays next year will be determined this winter, with his departure likely only the first of multiple moves the Cardinals will make before next season.

Those decisions were ones the team didn’t want to start thinking about this soon, hoping they could still have been playing for the next few weeks.

“I guarantee you there are some teams out there that are plenty happy the Cardinals are not continuing to play,” Matheny said. “There is disappointment about not having baseball here in St. Louis deep into October, that’s what we feel our job description is, so there’s regret only to the point that we weren’t able to obtain what we wanted to obtain.

“But no regret about how we went about it. I think that’s a good way to go about a baseball season and a good way to go about life – leave nothing in the tank and figure out a way to represent yourself, your family, your organization and your faith in a way that looks different and shines and I believe our guys did that.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

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