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12/27/10 10:00 AM EST

Late fade dashes Cardinals' playoff hopes

ST. LOUIS -- It was, if nothing else, a memorable season by the banks of the Mississippi in 2010.

A Cardinals team with high expectations battled through a frustrating year but still held a lead in the National League Central in August. Yet, a brutal late-season slide doomed the Redbirds to second place in the division -- leaving the Cards out of the playoffs for the third time in four years.

In very broad strokes, the season could have been foreseen: It was well-known that the top of the Cardinals' roster was strong, good enough to keep the team in contention almost no matter what. But it was also clear that this was a thin team, a club that was prone to being exposed if a few things went wrong.

And so, although much went right, enough things went wrong to keep the Cards on the outside looking in.

The club enjoyed plenty of individual highlights. Albert Pujols had another brilliant season and finished as the runner-up in the MVP voting. Adam Wainwright was likewise a Cy Young contender, and Jaime Garcia finished third in Rookie of the Year balloting. Matt Holliday's first full year in St. Louis was a success, the bullpen pitched well and Colby Rasmus took a step forward in his second big league season.

Year in Review
Looking back at 2010
MLB Year in Review
Game prospering
Final standings
Statistical leaders

Here's a look at five stories that defined the 2010 season in St. Louis:

5. Tony returns for one more season

The Cardinals waited a while, but once again they got the news that they were hoping for. Manager Tony La Russa decided in October to return for a 16th season at the helm of the team. La Russa seemed more on the fence this fall than in previous years, and his commitment didn't come without some changes. Bullpen coach Marty Mason was not retained, and assistant athletic trainer Greg Hauck moved up to head athletic trainer, with Barry Weinberg flipping jobs with Hauck. Still, most of the same faces will be around in '11.

4. The big three

The Cards figured they had a chance at a strong front of the starting rotation. They just couldn't have foreseen who would make up that three-headed monster. Adam Wainwright was brilliant once again, and Chris Carpenter was outstanding -- despite taking a small step back from his '09 season. But the third ace was rookie lefty Jaime Garcia, who had to fight just to secure the No. 5 starting spot coming out of Spring Training. Garcia's superb season was one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals stayed in contention for as long as they did.

3. Injuries, slumps and the search for offense

The heart of the Cards' order was strong just about all year. Pujols and Holliday hit at an All-Star level and both received MVP votes. But for a variety of reasons, they just didn't get enough help. David Freese was injured and missed the second half. Felipe Lopez was a non-factor at the plate nearly all year. Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan all took steps back at the plate. What should have been a deep lineup instead turned into a two- or three-man team on far too many occasions.

2. The trade

In dire need of some kind of help, the Cards made a controversial trade at the Trade Deadline. In order to acquire right-hander Jake Westbrook from Cleveland, St. Louis sent popular slugger Ryan Ludwick to San Diego. Westbrook pitched very well after the deal and, in fact, re-signed with the Cards for two more years after the season ended. But removing Ludwick from the lineup proved a costly blow to an offense that was already listing due to the aforementioned injuries and off years.

1. The sweep and the slide

Odds are, when fans look back on the 2010 season, even years from now, they'll think of a five-week span in August and September. From Aug. 9-11, the Cardinals swept a hard-fought series from the Reds -- claiming a one-game lead over Cincinnati in the division. The series featured fisticuffs between the two rivals, and many thought it would propel St. Louis to the division title. Instead, the Cards fell off a cliff immediately afterward. They went 10-21 over their next 31 games, despite playing many of their games against second-division teams -- falling eight games behind the Reds in just over a month.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.