ATLANTA -- Only two weeks ago, the Houston Astros were such a long shot to make the playoffs that it didn't seem they even had a chance to finish .500.
The Astros then took off on a determined comeback attempt that was so impressive manager Phil Garner couldn't believe his team fell short of the playoffs with Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves on the last day of the season.
"I really got to believing we were going to carry this out," Garner said after the defending NL champion Astros were eliminated from the Central race.
Added Garner: "I am a little disappointed and a little surprised we didn't win today."
The Astros outhit the Braves 9-3, but they left 11 on base and committed two errors that led to two unearned runs.
The Astros' loss clinched the division title for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Houston trailed the Cardinals by 8½ games on Aug. 19, when the Astros were 72-78. They pulled within a half-game of the lead with a nine-game winning streak that ended Friday night at Atlanta.
The Astros went into the final day trailing St. Louis by 1½ games and finished at 82-80. If Houston had won and St. Louis had lost to Milwaukee, the Cardinals would've had to play a makeup game Monday against San Francisco.
Some Houston players had difficulty accepting there would be no postseason.
"It's a little bit like somebody swept the rug out from under you," said reliever Brad Lidge. "It's a little shocking."
Added Mike Lamb: "I think it's hard to handle because we had nine hits and one run. The only thing I hope is that we learn from this experience. We have to be better in situational baseball."
Chris Sampson and five Houston relievers combined to give up only three hits, but the Braves capitalized on two errors for runs in the first and third innings.
Jeff Francoeur's 29th homer gave Atlanta its other run.
The Braves will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990, but they knocked out Houston, which beat Atlanta in the 2005 and 2004 division series.
"Oh, no doubt, we wanted to knock them out," said Atlanta's Andruw Jones. "We didn't want then to make the playoffs. We just wanted to go out there and hurt them.
"The last two years they've been killing us. We wanted to show them that we're still the Atlanta Braves," he said.
Smoltz (16-9) gave up six hits and struck out five. He walked three and also hit a batter.
"You have to give credit where credit is due," said Houston's Adam Everett. "Smoltz pitched a good game. He's that good for a reason."
Smoltz left runners stranded in scoring position in the second, third, fifth and sixth innings.
Wickman pitched the ninth for his 18th save in 19 chances with Atlanta. Traded from Cleveland late in the season, he wound up with 33 saves overall.
Marcus Giles led off the Atlanta first with a grounder to second baseman Chris Burke, whose throw to first sailed over Lance Berkman for an error. Giles later scored from third on Chipper Jones' grounder, beating Berkman's throw to the plate.
Francoeur's homer in the second inning pushed the lead to 2-0.
A throwing error by Lamb at third base gave Atlanta another unearned run in the third inning. With one out, Edgar Renteria walked and moved to second on Jones' single. Andruw Jones followed with a grounder to Lamb, who stepped on third for the force out on Renteria before throwing wide of first base for the error, allowing a run to score.
Despite having runners on second and third with no outs in the second inning, the Astros couldn't score.
Aubrey Huff led off with a walk and moved to third on Burke's bloop double to shallow left field. With one out, Humberto Quintero hit a fly ball to right and Francoeur made a sliding catch, quickly springing to his feet to throw out Huff at the plate.
"The big play of the game was Francoeur throwing that guy out," Smoltz said. "They gambled and they lost. They know he's got a great arm. I didn't think they would go but when he went down to the ground they probably thought he had a chance."
Sampson (2-1) gave up only two hits and three runs -- one earned -- in four innings.
- Smoltz moved into 19th place on the all-time strikeout list, breaking a tie with Frank Tanana, when he fanned Taveras in the first inning for No. 2,774th.