By Rob Rains
Seven years ago, playing in an elimination game at Nationals Park, the Cardinals fell behind 6-0 but staged out of the most amazing comebacks in franchise history to win the game and the Division Series.
On Tuesday night, needing a win to keep their season alive, they fell behind 7-0. History did not repeat itself. On this night, there was no miracle comeback.
The Cardinals did try to rally from the deficit, which came in the first 18 pitches in the bottom of the first inning. Yadier Molina hit a home run in the fourth. They scored three runs in the fifth, and all of a sudden it was a 7-4 game. People who were there on Oct. 12, 2012, began to get a little nervous that maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals were going to be able to do it again.
Those nerves got even worse in the eighth when the Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs, which brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate, pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter. Could all of the frustrations and disappointments from Carpenter’s season be wiped out with one swing?
Not on this night. His groundout to second ended the inning, and when the Cardinals were retired in order in the ninth, the Nationals had the 7-4 win and the Cardinals season was over.
“There’s a lot of heart and fight in this club,” said manager Mike Shildt. “There wasn’t one guy that didn’t expect to win that game. Yadi gets us started with the homer, and they couldn’t have felt real comfortable over there, which is how competition works. We just weren’t able to bring it home.
“It’s a special team that is down and could easily have packed it in. We had the go-ahead run at the plate with a guy we have confidence in, you know, take the lead. So a lot of positives took place, but not enough of them.”
They never led during the NL Championship Series, being swept out of the postseason because of an offense that produced more runs in the span of five batters in the fifth inning than they had scored in the first 31 innings of the series.
While the Cardinals head home to begin planning for next year, the Nationals are preparing for the first World Series in Washington since 1933.
“Their pitching was the difference in this series. … We ran into guys with elite pitches with experience and they performed,” said Shildt.
The memory of the final loss will linger most for starter Dakota Hudson, who only retired one of the eight hitters he faced, in part because of an error by Wong and a lazy popup that fell between Kolten Wong and Jose Martinez when both pulled up, thinking their teammate was going to catch it.
Those were the kinds of mistakes the Cardinals did not make often during the regular season, but which happened at the wrong time during this series.
Combined with the lack of offense, it created too big of an obstacle to overcome, not only in game four on Tuesday night but throughout the entire season.
After watching Dexter Fowler fail to get a hit in the first four games, Shildt finally changed the lineup, putting Tommy Edman in the leadoff spot and Martinez into the second spot, hoping the move would provide a spark to an offense that had a total of 11 hits and a .121 combined average in the first four games.
Martinez did come up with the big two-run double in the fifth, but that was the only hit among the team’s top three batte\ers.
It was a tough series for Paul Goldschmidt, who struck out in his first three at-bats on Tuesday night, extending his streak to seven strikeouts in a row. He finished the series with one hit in 16 at-bats.
Here is how Tuesday night’s game broke down:
At the plate: The five hits by the Cardinals left them 16-of-123 for the series, a .130 average. They struck out 14 times on Tuesday night, 10 in four innings against starter Patrick Corbin and finished the series with 48 strikeouts. They drew four walks in the game, which was one more than their total from the first three games … Molina’s homer with two outs in the fourth snapped a streak of 166 consecutive at-bats for the Cardinals in this postseason without a home run, dating back to game four of the Division Series … Wong had his first two hits of the series, but Fowler ended the series 0-of-12 while Edman was hitless in 14 at-bats and Carpenter finished the series 0-of-8 … Martinez’s double in the fifth was only the second hit by the Cardinals with a runner in scoring position and they finished 2-of-18 with a runner on second or third.
On the mound: It was a night for Hudson to forget, as he threw just 15 pitches, giving up five runs, before Adam Wainwright relieved and allowed two inherited runs to score that completed the seven-run first inning, when the Nationals sent 11 hitters to the plate … Starting in the second, the bullpen combined allowed just two hits over the rest of the game, but the Nationals had all of the runs they needed … Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos and Andrew Miller each worked two scoreless innings.
Key stat: This was the first time the Cardinals were swept in the NL Championship Series. They were swept in the 2009 Division Series by the Dodgers (3 games) and in the World Series in 2004 by the Red Sox and in the 1928 World Series against the Yankees.
Worth noting: The one-third of an inning start from Hudson was the shortest by a Cardinals’ starter in the postseason since Ray Sadecki lasted just one-third of an inning in game four of the 1964 World Series … It was the first time the Cardinals allowed seven runs in the first inning of a postseason game since the Braves scored seven off Todd Stottlemyre in game five of the 1996 NLCS.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports