The end, when it came, was almost merciful.
Four hours and 15 minutes after it had started, Alex Reyes threw his final pitch of the season – a slider that caught too much of the plate – and Los Angeles’ Chris Taylor drove it into the sprawling mass of humanity beyond the left field wall.
And that was it. After the franchise-record 17-game September winning streak had brought them a miraculous berth in the playoffs. After all the 2011 vibes. After a performance for the ages from Adam Wainwright. After all of that, St Louis’ relevance in the playoffs lasted exactly 255 minutes.
The Dodgers are now up to their necks in their next series (against the Giants). Next for the Cardinals will be spring training 2022.
I say merciful, because I honestly don’t think I could have taken another inning of watching the Cardinal hitters being bullied by the Dodger pitchers. A first-inning single (struck at all of 75.7 mph) off the bat of Tommy Edman, a stolen base, a fly ball, and a wild pitch was all that stood between the Cardinals and being shut out in the final game of their season.
As they were thoroughly dominated over the last 8 innings of the game, it became apparent that – since the Cardinals weren’t going to score again – at some point, some Cardinal reliever would allow the run that would finish the season.
That the offense finished 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position was just the tip of the iceberg. For the game, they were 0-for-19 with any runner on any base. Nine of the 17 Cardinals who came to the plate with the bases empty reached base (5 singles, 2 walks and 2 hit batsmen) – a .529 on base percentage. The 22 batters at the plate with some runner on managed 2 walks and a sacrifice hit.
They were just simply over-matched.
It was fitting, then, that that final blow came in the ninth inning, and came against Reyes. It’s how all of our signature losses occurred this season.
From the All-Star Break to the end of the season, the Cardinals suffered through a 5.04 team ERA in the ninth inning. In spite of their 23 September wins, the team’s ninth-inning September ERA was a concerning 6.04.
In the season’s second half, Reyes pitched 15.2 innings in the ninth inning – allowing 4 home runs with a 5.74 ERA. The last three ninth-inning batters that Alex faced all hit home runs off of him – almost homering for the cycle. Pittsburgh’s Yoshi Tsutsugo hit a three-run home run to beat the Cardinals 4-3 on August 29; Milwaukee’s Daniel Vogelbach touched off a grand-slam to send the Brewers to a 6-5 win on September 5; and then, the two-run drive from Taylor on Wednesday night.
In some sense, it was an almost predictable ending to a wildly unpredictable season. What we are left with (in the aftermath) is a team that was mostly average for most of the season, enjoyed an unbelievable hot streak for about 20 games, and then became average again until the opportunities ran out on them.
After 163 games, I still don’t believe I truly know who this team was.
Looking ahead is actually much easier than looking back. Going forward, we can say – with some surety – that the foundation is in place. The young outfielders (question marks entering the season) all took great steps forward. Paul Goldschmidt – after an uninspiring start – became one of the best hitters in baseball in the second half. Nolan Arenado did some good things with the bat, and will probably be much better next year.
Against the wave of injuries that dogged the pitching staff, a myriad of pitchers got opportunities. Thirteen different pitchers made starts for the Cards. Eight of them made at least 11 starts. Of the 13, only 6 are certain to be back next year, but from those 6 the team is confident it can craft a solid rotation: Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo. The plan is also to move Reyes (after pitching 72.1 innings in the pen) into the rotation. The Cards also have a top prospect in Matthew Liberatore who could be in the mix as well.
Among the candidate’s for the rotation, then, there is quite a bit of depth, and a good blend of youth and experience.
After surviving a two-year deluge of injuries, the bullpen has a good many productive arms to choose from – beginning with fireballers Jordan Hicks and Genesis Cabrera. Giovanny Gallegos – who ended the season as the closer – will return with his devastating slider. Two more very hard throwers in Junior Fernandez and Ryan Helsley should be healthy again by next year, and late additions T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia (another hard thrower) should also have earned the attention of the team.
St Louis had five different pitchers who crossed over the 100 mph mark this season. Hicks (who threw as high as 103.2), Helsley (101.3), Fernandez (100.6), Garcia (100.5) and Cabrera (100.4). Reyes came close (his fastest was 99.5) and Oviedo (who topped out at 98.7) threw the fastest pitch among the starters. It’s a lot of high octane arms.
Add in Kodi Whitley – who was very impressive down the stretch, and the Cards have an abundance of options to go along with all the promising young hitters and the best defense in baseball. This is a team that could easily see itself taking that next step. That’s what made their long flirtation with the .500 mark so confounding. They woke up on September with a 69-68 record, waiting until they were 14.5 games behind in the division with just 25 games left before flipping the switch.
A year of reasonably good health would help a lot. The Cardinals lost a total of 1155 games to the injured list (an average of 7.1 injured players per every game played). Four of the five who missed the most time were important pitchers who could have made a significant difference in the season. Hudson missed 153 games, Hicks was gone for 133, Mikolas was down for 119 games, and Flaherty missed 88. LeBlanc joined the club with 94 games left in the season, and spent the last 48 of those on the injured list.
All told, 891 of their injury days (77.1%) were to pitchers – a test to any team’s depth.
Assuming a normal injury year, there isn’t much left to be done to transform this group into a legitimate contender. There is a personnel decision to make this offseason. Do they believe that Edmundo Sosa – who was quite the sparkplug once he took over at short – is the starter there? Or will they pursue one of several premium shortstops on the market.
The final step forward for this team will simply be to play better in the playoffs, themselves. Of course, there is no dishonor in losing a tight game to an elite Dodger team. But watching that game I don’t feel that they played well at all.
If you think about it, the pressure should have been squarely on the Dodgers. They were the 106-win team – not to mention the defending champions – forced into a win-or-go home playoff with a team that finished sixteen victories behind them. A loss in this game turns Los Angeles’ season into debacle. And yet, it was the Dodgers who played their game in the one-game playoff, and the “playing-with-house-money” Cardinals who were visibly affected by the magnitude of the game.
Few of the hitters took good at bats. Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina went 0-for-12 with nary a good at bat among them. Dylan Carlson did get a hit on a dribbler to the left side that beat the shift, but the rest of his at bats were nervous as well.
The nerves were even more pronounced on the pitching side – especially from Garcia and McFarland. These were two arms whose consistency in throwing strikes had settled the bullpen remarkably in the season’s second half. But Luis threw fewer than 60% strikes (just 16 of his 27 pitches), surviving his 1.2 innings giving a hit and a walk but no damage. McFarland only found the strike zone with 8 of his 18 pitches. While Alex served up the game-winning home run, the winning run was actually charged to T.J. – who had walked left-hander Cody Bellinger ahead of Taylor’s blast. In 38.2 innings during the season, McFarland walked just 9 batters (one intentional).
Cody was only the second left-handed batter that TJ walked all season.
Last year in the series against San Diego I noticed much the same thing. Far too many of them let the moment get to them. They will not be a serious factor in the playoffs until they can learn to manage the emotions that go along with high-pressure ballgames.
We’re close. It should all make for an intriguing off-season and a compelling 2022.
The Wildcard game lasted 4:15 – in spite of the fact that the teams combined for just 4 runs and 12 hits. It was the longest Cardinal game since it took 4:34 to subdue the Mets in New York on September 14. That game went 11 innings. The Wildcard game was St Louis’ longest 9-inning game of the season. The previous longest 9-inning game occurred on September 5 – when Vogelbach’s grand slam gave the Brewers a 6-5 walk-off win and ending a 4:08 marathon.
The official attendance of 53,193 was the biggest crowd to see a Cardinal game this season. The season’s previous largest crowd was the 48,182 that showed up in Coors Field on July 3.
My Designated Hitter Rant
Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter. Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH. While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it. So, I have re-written it here. The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks. I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.