“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is the most-quoted line of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who died in 1892 and therefore didn’t know jack about the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals. A loss in a tense, seven-game NLCS decided by one play would have led to an offseason of hand-wringing, recriminations, and nightmares about what could have been but was not.
Instead, the Cardinals showed up to the NLCS—well, “showed up” probably isn’t the right way to put it. St. Louis waited until the eighth inning of Game 1 and the seventh inning of Game 2 to get a hit, and scored just one run in the home leg of the series. They went to Washington down 0-2. Once in the nation’s capital, the Cardinals tagged Stephen Strasburg for seven hits in seven innings in Game 3, but struck out 12 times against the Nationals’ big right-hander, and managed just one run on a bizarre Juan Soto misplay in left field. And while the bats started to wake up, the one thing St. Louis could count on in its first two games—good pitching—evaporated as ace Jack Flaherty surrendered four runs in four innings and took the decision in an 8-1 loss.
So by the time Game 4 rolled around on Tuesday, the series was over. Just once in baseball history had a team recovered from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series, after all, and to that point the Nationals had comprehensively outplayed their opponents. St. Louis’s Game 4 starter, Dakota Hudson, lasted just a third of an inning and was charged with seven runs, though not all of them were his fault—second baseman Kolten Wong booted a throw on a potential force-out, then on the very next play let a pop-up drop between himself and right fielder José Martínez.
The Cardinals showed some unexpected fight—or at least some unexpected offense—by clawing back to 7-4 and even bringing the go-ahead run to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning against Daniel Hudson, but that’s as close as they got.
Martínez went 5-for-10 with three RBIs in this series, while the rest of the Cardinals lineup went 11-for-113 with two RBIs. Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna, the Cardinals’ no. 3 and no. 4 hitters, combined to strike out in 10 straight plate appearances in games 3 and 4. For all the discourse about how bad the Nationals’ bullpen was outside of Sean Doolittle and Hudson, the Cardinals managed to face the underbelly of Washington’s relief corps for a total of three innings, all while trailing by at least three runs. Against Tanner Rainey and Fernando Rodney, the Cardinals went 0-for-9 with five strikeouts.
If any of Tennyson’s lines apply to the Cardinals’ NLCS performance, it’s the refrain from his 1830 poem “Mariana”:
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
There will be no critical mistake to agonize over, no fork in the road. Just a string of four wholesale beatdowns. The series was effectively over so quickly that by the time it was literally over, the denizens of St. Louis had ample opportunity to take a deep breath, work through their grief, and get amped for the Blues’ defense of the Stanley Cup.
So how will we remember the 2019 Cardinals?
Despite a three-year playoff absence, and despite coming into the season as third-favorites in the NL Central, the Cardinals were able to win baseball’s messiest division through quiet competence. They outlasted the grotesquely dysfunctional Cubs and the injury-plagued Brewers, and gutted out a hard-fought NLDS against the Braves, in which every victory was memorable. The late comebacks in games 1 and 4, to say nothing of the 10-run first inning in Game 5, will go down as the kind of rosy memories fans sit through an entire season hoping to experience. That the Cardinals were so thoroughly shellacked in the NLCS is less than ideal—certainly compared to a trip to the World Series—but it’s a small part of a generally positive year-long narrative.
It’s also a reminder that as much as the Cardinals have done to assemble a team capable of making the playoffs and winning a round, they still have a long way to go before contemplating a title run.
Over the past two years, St. Louis has pursued a balanced team-building plan, augmenting the existing core with a combination of former top prospects (Flaherty and Hudson) and established outside talent (Goldschmidt, Ozuna, Andrew Miller). They’ve had several players take surprising but crucial leaps forward, namely infielders Tommy Edman and Paul DeJong, who went from second-day picks with questions about their skill sets translating to the pros, and righty Miles Mikolas, who returned from an exile in Japan as a solid no. 2 or no. 3 starter.
But there’s still a great deal of retooling to be done. After serving as the faces of the franchise for a generation, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright—who’s a free agent this winter—are all but out of tread on their tires, and both Miller and center fielder Dexter Fowler are showing their age as well. What can they expect from former ace Carlos Martínez, forced to the bullpen full time this year by injuries?
Ozuna is a free agent this winter as well, and if the Cardinals don’t retain him they’ll have to raise the payroll substantially if they want to scrounge up a replacement from outside the organization, as Goldschmidt, Mikolas, Carpenter, and Wong are all due substantial raises in 2020. For the past few years, the Cardinals haven’t been shy about pouncing on upper-middle-tier free agents like Fowler and Miller, or leveraging other teams’ miserliness to snap up players like Ozuna and Goldschmidt. But they haven’t played at the very top of the free-agent market, nor have they been inclined to run payrolls that bump up against the luxury tax threshold.
On the other hand, the NL Central looks easier to win than it has in about 10 years. The Cubs are paddling rapidly in the wrong direction, while the Brewers may have to replace Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, and Gio González, plus contend with the possible declines of Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun, all on a budget even smaller than the Cardinals’. The Reds have gone from the basement to competence but are still years from contending, and the Pirates have apparently decided to sit the pennant race out until losing 90 games a year and collecting revenue-sharing checks stops being more profitable than trying.
So like the Twins and Braves, the Cardinals didn’t go as far as they might have liked this postseason, but they took a step forward in 2019 and will enter the offseason as favorites to win their division in 2020. Far from having loved and lost, the Cardinals can chalk this season up as a success for the most part, even if they fell short of their ultimate objective in somewhat ignominious fashion.