How did the Cardinals fizzle out?

©Alex MacDougall

By Nick Telesmanic
BU News Service

Entering the NLCS series against the Washington Nationals, the St. Louis Cardinals seemed like a team poised for victory, especially after Cardinals manager Mike Shildt gave a fiery speech to hype up his team following their division series triumph over the Atlanta Braves. But they couldn’t pull it off.

Everything seemed to be going the Cardinals’ way. They proved themselves worthy by winning a do-or-die Game five against the series favorite in dominant fashion. The Nationals were sure to have a challenging foe to face.

Except they didn’t. The Nats were able to claim the National League pennant with ease.

Game one of the series seemed like a treat for the Cardinals before it began. The Nationals had Anibal Sánchez, their least-overwhelming pitcher in their rotation starting. The Cardinals had rookie Miles Mikolas, who had already collected a win against the Braves in the NLDS, pitching five innings and giving up one run.

Even though the Cardinals were at home, nothing could energize the Cardinals offense against Sánchez. He pitched a no-hitter for seven innings before surrendering a single to St. Louis right fielder Jose Martinez. This lone single would be the only hit of the night for the Cardinals, as they fell by a score of 0-2.

Then, the Cardinals had to face three-time Cy Young winner veteran pitcher Max Scherzer the next day in Game two. It would have been great if the Cardinals had a 1-0 lead in the series to act as a cushion for this challenge ahead.

However, the Nationals starting pitching has proven robust all season, and again this was not the right time for the Redbird bats to go cold. Scherzer pitched seven shutout innings, only surrendering one hit. The Cardinals would score one run in the bottom of the eigth off of Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle en route to a 1-3 loss. However, these runs were mainly due to an outfield misplay by Washington center fielder Michael A. Taylor.

This play wasn’t particularly tricky, and Taylor had plenty of time to get to the high line drive. Had he lined himself up correctly with the ball to record the third out, the narrative heading into Game three would have been worse for the Cardinals than it already was.

For Game three, the Cardinals had to go to Washington and face Nationals ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg. Entering this game, Strasburg had a postseason Earned Run Average (ERA) of 1.32.

He lowered that number. 

Pitching seven innings of one (unearned) run ball and lowering his playoff ERA to 1.05, Strasburg rolled through the Cardinals offense again. Striking out 12 batters, he joined the likes of Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson and Gerrit Cole as pitchers to record multiple 12+ strikeout games in the postseason.

And then, in Game four, the Cardinals would not be able to keep the series going and would fall by a score of 0-4. Washington managed to tack on a lot of runs in the first inning – seven in total. Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin showed no mercy as well, recording ten strikeouts in just four innings. 

The Cardinals would finally get some offense generating in this series, tacking on four combined runs in the fourth and fifth innings. However, the seven runs scored in the first was all Washington needed to claim the National League Pennant. They punched their first ticket to the World Series in Nationals/Expos franchise history.

The Cardinals certainly deserved to make it this far into the postseason. They won 91 games in the regular season, had the second best team ERA in their league and won in the first round against the Braves, who won 97 games in a division with three other teams above .500.

The thing is, the Nationals starting pitching been quietly stellar the entire season. On May 23, they held a 19-31 record, were in fourth place in the National League East, and were seemingly at rock bottom.

In the tweet above, you can see that the Bullpen ERA for the Nationals was very high at 6.89 on this date, but the starting rotation ERA sat at 3.92, which was certainly not terrible. 

The Nationals got a hot streak and made the playoffs. The starting rotation core of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez was undoubtedly bound to come up big for the Nats and was finally able to nullify their bullpen issues.

And that’s precisely what it did. It does not matter how shallow the Nationals bullpen is, as long as the Nationals have the starters to go the extra distance, they are a seemingly unstoppable team. This rotation will be the X-factor against their American League opponent in the Houston Astros. If the Nationals have to rely on their bullpen against a hard-slugging Houston team, there could be trouble.

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