Story complete: Cards rise, Braves fall

It was a sickening way for the Atlanta Braves’ season to die, with Hunter Pence’s cracked-bat blooper that didn’t even escape the infield but forlornly fell in no-man’s land between first baseman Freddie Freeman and second baseman Dan Uggla.

There was nothing to be done with the ball. Uggla gently bent down and picked it up, looking like he wanted to use his two meaty biceps to squish it into oblivion.

No, the Braves' season didn’t die with that one play, just like it didn’t die when Freddie Freeman grounded into a 3-6-3 double play for the final outs in the bottom of the 13th and slammed his helmet in frustration as he crossed first base.

No, it didn’t die when Michael Martinez ran down a Chipper Jones line drive deep in the left-center gap in the 10th, a screamer that nearly scored Michael Bourn with the game’s winning run.

It didn’t die when Craig Kimbrel, so good all season long, couldn’t protect a 3-2 lead in the ninth, his fastball humming but his control lacking. He gave up a single, three walks and a sacrifice fly. Pushed all season long, he just ran out of gas down the stretch.

It didn’t die in the seventh inning, when Tim Hudson appeared to get an inning-ending double play with runners on the corners, only to see shortstop Jack Wilson -- playing for injured regular Alex Gonzalez -- boot the smash, allowing the Phillies to cut the margin to 3-2.

No, it was a slow, painful burn for the Braves, blowing a lead that was 8.5 games earlier in the month. It was a month of agonizing losses, wrapped up in the final seven innings of Game No. 162. It will go in history’s annals alongside other famous collapses.

In the end, the NL wild-card race story is about the St. Louis Cardinals and their September surge. Put them alongside the ’51 Giants and the ’64 Cardinals and the ’78 Yankees and ’95 Mariners as baseball’s miracle comeback kids.

Honestly, and no disrespect to the Braves or their fans, but the Cardinals are the better team right now. With the great Albert Pujols leading the way, they have a chance, a lineup scary enough even for the mighty Phillies rotation, and a starting rotation of their own that has been sterling down the stretch.

The Cardinals make the postseason more interesting. Albert’s last stand? We’ll get at least three more games of him in a Cardinals uniform, at least one more game for Cardinals fans to give him a standing ovation every time he comes to the plate.

Think about his season: He got off to a terrible start, hitting .257 in April and .288 with just two home runs in May. It was the first slump of his career, the first extended stretch he wasn’t one of the most feared hitters in baseball. And then he fractured his left wrist; he was supposed to miss four to six weeks. “I'm going to go find a place to cry," Tony La Russa said at the time.

He missed 14 games. Strong bones, they said. When he returned, he was good as ever, hitting .320/.378/.585 from July 6 until the season’s final game. You get the feeling he’s on a mission: To bring another World Series title to St. Louis.

In this most shocking of baseball seasons, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Cardinals go all the way, riding the broad shoulders of one of the greatest players of all time.

And then I hope he re-signs with the Cards. Where he belongs.