PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard tapped a soft grounder to second baseman Nick Punto, and it was over.

The Phillies and their season-long fixation of playing in the 2011 World Series went up in flames at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night. It may be Spring Training before they're able to walk away from the ruins of this disaster. If ever.

The Cardinals, flashing energy, desire and clutch hitting the Phils lacked, used a first-inning run off Roy Halladay and rode Chris Carpenter's magnificent three-hit pitching to a stunning 1-0 victory.

So, the Redbirds, who've won 26 of their past 37 games since late August, are off to the best-of-seven National League Championship Series that begins Sunday at Miller Park against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cards came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits in this series.

For Philadelphia, failing to get past St. Louis in the best-of-five NL Division Series is devastating.

"This really hurts. I have an empty feeling," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said as he paced back and forth in his office an hour after the last out. "It's going to take some time to get over this one."

From the moment general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. signed free agent Cliff Lee in December, the Phils had their sights set on the World Series.

Lee joined Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to form one of the best starting rotations in years.

Landing Lee, who turned his back on the Yankees and Rangers, was a coup for Amaro. Even without the left-hander, the Phillies were capable of winning their division for a fifth straight year, but the focus was on the postseason, the World Series.

But as the Cardinals celebrated their first postseason series triumph since the 2006 World Series, the dazed Phillies were preparing to go home for the winter.

In winning their three games, the Cards defeated three of the four aces -- Lee, Oswalt and Halladay. Only Halladay, in Game 1, and Hamels, in Game 3, survived the St. Louis onslaught.

"It's the same as last year," said Halladay, who allowed six hits. "We felt like we had the team to do it. We came up short. It's tough to describe. We felt like it was right there, and we had a chance to do it and came up short. Winning the World Series is the ultimate goal for us. It's tough right now, and something that won't set well for us this winter."

With the Phillies losing, Major League Baseball's top two teams of 2011 have fallen. The Yankees were ousted by the Tigers on Thursday night.

As a footnote, the two teams with the highest payrolls, the Yanks and Phils, are on the sidelines.

Add to that the collapse of the Boston Red Sox, and three of the teams expected to contend deep into the postseason will not be there.

The Phillies joined a glaring list of teams that have won 100 or more games in a season and failed in the postseason. They're the 21st team to win 100 or more since the Wild Card was introduced in 1995 and are the eighth team among the 21 to be ousted from the Division Series. Only the Yankees of '98 and 2009 have gone on to win the World Series.

While the Phils and their fans, who sold out Citizens Bank Park every game, are in a state of shock, they really shouldn't be.

Even though Philadelphia won 102 games, there were hints during the season that its inconsistent offense could be a problem against top-level competition in the postseason.

That's exactly what happened.

The Cardinals stormed from behind to win the NL Wild Card and carried their momentum to the NLDS.

They were adroit at creating quality at-bats, building up the pitch count of opposing pitchers.

Friday night's "dream matchup" between close friends and former Toronto Blue Jays teammates Carpenter and Halladay lived up to its billing.

Throughout the game, the one-run deficit seemed monumental for Philadelphia's struggling hitters. Shane Victorino had a double and a single, and Chase Utley a single. That was it.

Manuel told me from the third inning on, he had a bad feeling about being able to solve Carpenter.

Throughout the series, unlike the Cardinals, the Phillies were unable to create quality at-bats. Getting runners on base was a chore.

On Friday night, Carpenter set them down in order five of the nine innings. Only once -- in the fourth inning -- did the Phils have more than one runner on at the same time.

In the series, Philadelphia was put down in order 19 times in its last 31 innings, and the club was held scoreless in 31 of its last 36 innings.

"It's hard to go home early," said left fielder Raul Ibanez. "Everybody in here thought we were going to be playing a lot longer, expected to be playing a lot longer. Obviously, it didn't happen. It's very difficult to stomach."

For the second straight postseason, Howard was in a terrible slump.

His groundout to second base left him hitless in his past 15 at-bats with six strikeouts. Sadly, as he ran to first base on that last out, he tore his Achilles tendon, a terrible way to end the season.

It was Howard who looked at a third strike a year ago for the final out as the San Francisco Giants ousted the Phillies from the NLCS.

"You have to give credit to those guys," Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols said. "They won 102 games for a reason. They were good. We knew it was going to be tough, the whole series.

"Obviously, we just played a little bit better today than they did."

That's the sobering message the Phils must take home for the winter.