ST. LOUIS -- The protective plastic was in place at their lockers and the bottles of ginger ale, tailored for Josh Hamilton's team, were wheeled into the Texas Rangers clubhouse.
The World Series score from last year was just about settled.
And the 51-year championship drought was one strike from being over ... until two two-run leads and a World Series were wasted.
A day after Thursday night's devasting Game 6 loss, in the quiet of a dry Texas clubhouse with the plastic rolled all the way up to the top, some Rangers couldn't help but recall how close they had come the night before. One pitch here or there, and the title and glory were all theirs.
But the comeback Cardinals kept counterpunching. Even Friday night in Game 7, after quickly grabbing a 2-0 lead in the first inning, the Rangers made it three innings out of four in which they blew a two-run lead.
As they fell 6-2 to the Cardinals -- losing their second straight World Series -- the memory of lost advantages and chances from the previous night was still fresh. And it will forever be fresh.
"For the Texas Rangers people, that's going to be the biggest memory ever. Unfortunately, that's what this team will probably be known for,'' Rangers reliever Mike Adams said of the 10-9 defeat in Game 6 that will endure. "I wish it would be different. But that might be how we are known.''
Reality was setting in fast for the star-laden, star-crossed franchise so determined to right the wrong of a surprisingly lopsided five-game World Series defeat by the pitching-strong Giants the year before. The Rangers all had a turn to speak afterward in the clubhouse before the media was let in, and it sounds like they tried to keep it as positive as possible. Quirky, upbeat manager Ron Washington told them he felt they were champions even though there would be no trophy.
There were thanks all around for the commitments that were made to improving on last year's team and winning this season. And it's true, they could not have come closer without actually getting it done. But soon after the meeting ended, they had to face the cold truth of a second straight wasted opportunity.
Never before had a team allowed runs in the eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings, as the Rangers did in their historic Game 6 blowup. Never had a team come within one strike in two separate late innings and lost two-run leads in both of them.
"To be one strike away and not get it done, it's not too good,'' said Adrian Beltre, the well-traveled star who signed with Texas before the season in hopes of finally playing in a World Series. "I waited 14 years for this. To be one strike away ... we didn't get it done. I can't explain what I feel right now. It's not a good feeling.''
The Rangers jumped to a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning of Game 7, but after that they seemed spent. Texas pitchers ran their Series walk total to 41 and surrendered two runs in one ugly fifth inning on three walks and two hit-batsmen. Perhaps the events of the previous night were just too much to overcome.
"It was just a little bit difficult,'' Adams said. "That was the most emotional game we had. It just wears on you.''
The Rangers made sure to pay tribute to a resilient Cardinals team that will be recalled for coming back from 10½ games back in the NL wild-card race, for coming back from a 4-0 Game 2 NLCS deficit against Cliff Lee and the favored Phillies and for making the most improbable comeback of all in a Game 6 in which the spent the first seven innings tripping over each other.
"The way they did it all year, maybe they deserved to win,'' Beltre conceded.
Of course, Beltre was one of the few players who didn't endure the 2010 World Series loss to the Giants. He and gritty catcher Mike Napoli came to lengthen their lineup and bolster their team, two more imports who slipped out of the hands of the rival Los Angeles Angels. The other Rangers, who worked hard to get back to the Fall Classic only to watch history slip out of their hands, may have been a bit harder hit.
Some questionable decisions by Washington won't make the wondering any easier.
After their 100-mph-throwing closer, Neftali Feliz, lost a two-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 6, Washington curiously turned to veteran Darren Oliver to get the save in the 10th and the lefty promptly blew another two-run lead. Then in the 11th, Washington eschewed ready ace C.J. Wilson for littled-used reliever Mark Lowe, who served up David Freese's gamewinning homer. Finally, the Texas manager sent young Matt Harrison to the mound against Chris Carpenter in Game 7 when Game 4 hero Derek Holland could have been saved to pitch on four days rest.
"I did what I thought was best for us,'' Washington said, suggesting he had no second thoughts. "A lot of people have opinions about things, but as I said ... I know my team better than anybody in this room.''
The room that stored the players was stonily silent, filled only with regret and lost hope. Many of them still couldn't believe it a day later. And it's no wonder.
The day before, several imagined what the championship feeling would be like. Nobody had ever been that close twice only to lose. The shock was still felt.
"I peeked in the dugout and saw guys getting a foot up on the railing, getting excited,'' David Murphy said of Game 6. "I took a step back when I thought the next pitch was going to be the final out. I could almost visualize that trophy.''
They all could. But in a couple instants, it was all gone.