The night of July 8 feels like ages ago after the Cubs blasted the St. Louis Cardinals out of the National League Division Series in four games.
The Cubs had the Cardinals on the ropes that unseasonably chilly day at Wrigley Field, leading 5-4 heading into the top of the ninth. A win would’ve secured a series victory and firmly stamped the Cubs as contenders in the NL Central. Instead, Jhonny Peralta ripped Pedro Strop’s two-out, two-strike pitch into the left field basket for a ninth-inning, go-ahead, two-run home run that served as a reminder of why the Cardinals haven’t missed the playoffs since 2010.
St. Louis went on to win 100 games and its third consecutive division title, teeing them up to — somewhat unfairly, given the 90-win New York Mets and 92-win Los Angeles Dodgers — face the winner of the NL wild card game. “The Cardinal Way” meant sustaining injuries to ace Adam Wainwright, outfielder Matt Holliday and first baseman Matt Adams didn’t negatively affect the club’s win total at the end of the year.
But something changed when the Cubs rolled into Busch Stadium on Labor Day. The Cubs scored 20 runs and took two of three games that week, then over a weekend at Wrigley Field later in September plated 16 runs in another series win. As it turns out, those six games were a sign of things to come in the postseason.
“I think they've been playing with a lot of confidence, and obviously they finished the season that way,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “There are a lot of things going in a good direction for that team. You've got a lot of talent, no question. You had some pitching that stepped up tremendously, and everybody kind of finding their role and some of the younger guys kind of taking those big roles.
“You could see that this team was going in the right direction and feeling good about themselves heading into the playoffs.”
While the Cardinals absorbed those key injuries in the spring and summer, losing catcher Yadier Molina and right-hander Carlos Martinez down the stretch turned out to be difficult to overcome. Molina in Game 3 aggravated the sprained left thumb he suffered Sept. 20 when Anthony Rizzo slid into his glove, so the Cardinals were forced to play Game 4 without their seven-time All-Star catcher. Veteran right-hander John Lackey was ineffective on short rest in Game 4 as well — and maybe this series would’ve gone differently had Martinez, who faded a bit down the stretch but still had a 3.01 ERA, been available.
Instead, after beating the guy the Cubs spent $155 million to lure to Clark and Addison in Game 1, Cardinals pitching allowed 10 home runs and the offense couldn't keep up over their final three games of the season.
“It was just unfortunate,” Matheny said. “This is a team that was as impressive to watch from day one as any team I've ever been around, and just a collection of skill and fight and character and just all the way across the board from the veteran guys leading to the young guys figuring out a way to contribute. It was a special group.
“You know, that's always hard to walk away from.”
The Cardinals will return to St. Louis and attempt to figure out what went wrong over four games when so much went right over 162. Matheny’s decision-making can be nit-picked — like why left-hander Kevin Siegrest, against whom left-handed batters had an .811 OPS in the regular season, was allowed to give up game-clinching home runs to Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber Tuesday — and the Cardinals’ inability to beat Jake Arrieta despite forcing his shortest start since June can be lamented.
But the Cardinals saw the Cubs building momentum as the regular season progressed, and perhaps there’s room in the discussion for allowing that a good team was beaten by another good team in a short series.
Welcome to life in the NL Central, where the Cardinals, Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates were arguably the three best teams in baseball this year. The Cubs dispatched the Pirates in the wild card game, then needed four games to knock out the division champions and demonstrate that, like the Cardinals, they deserve to be considered among baseball’s elite.
“They proved it this series,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “The young guys came up, they stepped up. They did what they needed to do to win. Seeing the talent they have, you realize we’re in for a tough series and the Pirates are the same. It’s going to be like this next year.”