- Associated Press - Thursday, September 29, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) - Nearly an hour after one more loss in a historic collapse, Freddie Freeman walked through the Braves clubhouse still wearing his No. 5 uniform, as if he couldn’t believe he’d be taking it off for the final time this year.

Indeed, the season is over.

It’s going to take a long time to get over this one.

With a September swoon that ranked right up there with all those playoff flops in the 1990s and 2000s, Atlanta frittered away a wild card that seemed a certainly just a few weeks ago. Instead, it’s St. Louis heading to the playoffs, while the Braves have all winter to figure out what went wrong.

Was it that blown lead in St. Louis, which opened the door for a Cardinals sweep that seemed to turn the tide in early September? Was it that potentially game-ending grounder Chipper Jones somehow lost in the lights at Florida, quickly followed by a homer that handed the Braves another excruciating loss?

Was it the injury-plagued starters? The young bullpen that seemed to wear down? The punchless offense that totally disappeared in the final days?

Whatever the reasons, it officially ended Wednesday night with closer Craig Kimbrel blowing a lead in the ninth inning and Hunter Pence coming through with a two-out, broken-bat single in the 13th that gave the Philadelphia Phillies a 4-3 victory.

But the collapse began long before the regular season finale. The Braves were a dismal 9-18 in September and ended with a five-game losing streak to finish a game behind the Cardinals.

“We had our chances,” center fielder Michael Bourn said. “Not just this game. You can go weeks before.”

The Braves were 10 1/2 games ahead of St. Louis before play on Aug. 26. They were still up by 8 1/2 games on the morning of Sept. 6. Instead of popping champagne for a second straight trip to the playoffs, they became the first team in major league history to squander a lead of at least eight games for a playoff spot in September.

They had company a short time later when Boston did the same in the AL, but that was of little consolation in Atlanta.

“This is tough,” All-Star catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”

More than an hour after St. Louis routed Houston 8-0 to claim at least a share of the wild card, the Cardinals got it outright when Freeman hit into a season-ending double play.

Freeman buckled over down the right-field line, burying his head in his hands. Dan Uggla, who was on base, crawled on his knees near second base. In the Braves’ dugout, everyone else just stared at the field in disbelief.

The Braves had this one. And they blew it.

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