PHILADELPHIA — Four aces and still a bust.
Armed with the best rotation in baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies watched their dream season end well short of a World Series with a 1-0 loss to Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of their NL playoff Friday night.
Roy Halladay did his part under pressure. It was the bats that flopped with the season on the line.
The fizzlin' Phillies came up empty in the clutch and have all winter to wonder how their championship-or-nothing season ended at home with their No. 1 pitcher on the mound.
Carpenter was the one dealing all the right cards, tossing a three-hitter to send the 102-win Phillies packing.
Expected to peak in October, the Phillies instead simply flopped — the latest disappointment for a team that has turned into the second-biggest spender in the majors.
They followed their 2008 World Series title with a loss to the New York Yankees in the 2009 World Series. A year ago, it was a surprising NL championship series loss against San Francisco.
Now comes the biggest heartache of 'em all — losing to the Cardinals in the NL division series.
Before Game 1, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel proclaimed, "We're going to win the series."
He needed plenty more help from an uptight lineup.
Ryan Howard was 2 for 19 in the series and flied out in the seventh on a 3-0 pitch. He grounded out to end the game and hurt himself while breaking out of the batter's box, crumpling to the ground before he was helped off the field by the training staff.
Howard grabbed his left ankle and went to the turf as the Cardinals celebrated behind him.
Placido Polanco was 2 for 19. Carlos Ruiz was 1 for 17.
Even Chase Utley, who had a solid series, was caught stealing for the first time this season when he was nailed at second in the sixth. When Hunter Pence ended the inning with a weak grounder, boos, an almost-extinct noise in Philly these days, could be heard at Citizens Bank Park.
Fans were distraught, most standing in silence with their hands in their pockets for the final out. Then, they glumly filed out for the last time this season.
Halladay tossed six-hit ball and threw 126 pitches over eight innings, striking out seven with one intentional walk. He had his second straight shaky first inning, allowing a triple and a run-scoring double to open the game, before settling down and keeping the Phillies in the game.
Led by Halladay, the Phillies cruised to their fifth straight NL East title and their franchise-record 102 wins led the majors for the second straight season.
This year at Citizens Bank Park was never about regular-season achievement.
Anything less than a World Series title will be considered a failure by fans, players and management.
They can pin this one on the lineup.
Shane Victorino was stranded at second after a one-out double in the second inning. Victorino, who had two of their three hits, singled in the fourth to give Philadelphia runners at the corners with two outs. Raul Ibanez flied out to right to end the rally.
Utley gave the ball a ride to deep center to open the ninth, but was out. Pence grounded out to third.
Howard ended it — like last season when Giants closer Brian Wilson struck him out looking with the tying run at second base to end Game 6 of the NLCS.
Halladay beat the Cardinals in the opener, despite a shaky start. He allowed a three-run homer to Lance Berkman in the first inning, but dominated the rest of the way.
The Cardinals tagged him in the first again. Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple and scored on Skip Schumaker's double.
Somehow, that was enough.
What hurts worse for the rally-towel waving die-hards was that St. Louis wouldn't even be here without help from the Phillies.
The Cardinals trailed the Braves by 10½ games on Aug. 25, but went 23-8 the rest of the way and earned a wild-card berth after game No. 162 when Philadelphia completed a three-game sweep in Atlanta.
NOTES: Philadelphia's postseason record is 49-54. ... The Phillies hadn't played a decisive postseason game since losing Game 5 of the division series against Montreal in the strike-shortened 1981 season. -- (AP)