It's one thing to lose.
It's another thing to lose your way.
But that's exactly what happened to the St. Louis Cardinals as their season came to a sorry end Monday night in San Francisco.
After 24 hours to think about it, the assessment doesn't change: The Cardinals did nothing differently during the final stages of the NLCS than they did during many, many games during the regular season.
Remember how many times this year you watched this team struggle to score runs, a club plagued by an offense that disappeared for no apparent reason, confounding the players in the clubhouse and the fans outside it?
Sixty-three times this year - 39 percent of their games -- the Cardinals' offense scored three runs or fewer, despite an offense that was second in the NL in runs scored. In the postseason, when pitching is generally better across the board, the Cards scored three runs or fewer in six of 13 games (46 percent).
And lost all six.
I guess Whitey Herzog was right all those years ago, when he noted that a baseball team truly finds its level in the span of a 162-game season. You're no better, and no worse, than the record you reach after six months of playing a baseball game every day.
And so it turned out this month: A sometimes inspired but flawed Cardinal team, beset by injuries and an inconsistent offense and starting rotation, finally found out it wasn't as good as the team in the other dugout.
Maybe a more loyal Albert Pujols would have helped with that. Maybe a healthy Lance Berkman would have given a lift to the rest of the regulars. Maybe a healthy Rafael Furcal would have calmed the chaos on the infield. Maybe a healthy Chris Carpenter would have had an entire season to draw upon, instead of five starts -- his spring training, really -- as the Cards postseason crashed and burned by the Bay.
But in the end it doesn't matter: Pujols went elsewhere. Berkman was betrayed by a balky knee. Furcal couldn't overcome an elbow injury. And Carpenter had no other choice than to attempt a late-season comeback that few onlookers had thought could happen.
But that loss of talent showed in the end, when the rest of the batting order and pitching staff couldn't pick up the slack -- despite the evenhanded leadership displayed by Mike Matheny in a mostly positive rookie season as manager.
Matt Holliday hit .200 with two RBIs in the series. Last year's postseason star, Allen Craig, hit .125 with two RBIs. Last October's postseason MVP, David Freese, hit .192 with two RBIs -- on his first swing in Game 1.
Another suspect part of the club -- starting pitching, with Carpenter gone for most of the year and Adam Wainwright returning for a year's hiatus due to elbow surgery -- also faltered badly this month.
In the 13 postseason games, the Cardinals starting pitcher got past the sixth inning twice. St. Louis starters pitched only 58 1/3 innings in 13 games, an average of less than 4 1/2 innings a start.
And then there was the suddenly faltering defense; in the last three losses, the Cardinals made four errors, leading to seven unearned runs for the Giants.
This is not to criticize the Cardinals' effort, or their spirit, or their refusal to go quietly until they ran out of steam in their 173rd, 174th and 175th games of the year.
But run out of steam they did. And so we come to a one-week-longer-than-we-wanted-it offseason for the Cardinals and their fans, who will spend part of that time wondering what might have been.
One win away from another World Series three different times. And each of them a loss.
As Tony La Russa said many times, this game finds a way to humble even its best players, let alone an imperfect team trying to move forward on grit and guile.
Consider the Cardinals humbled.
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association, was one of the official scorers for the 2011 World Series won by the Cardinals. He has written about the team for the News-Democrat since 1985, and can be reached at (618) 239-2512 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.