Anything can happen in the wild-card game, which is the sudden death game, and only one team can survive. Win it, or wash out. Prevail or fail. Advance to the next round, or advance to the October vacation you didn’t want to take.

You step into the hot box, bat in hand, and sweat through close encounters. You stand on the mound, gripping the seams of the baseball in moments of gripping drama. The temperature rises, and the tension rises … and mercy, can someone please put an oxygen tank in the dugout? If you can’t handle the pressure, the pressure will consume you. Only one team can escape from this hell.

On Wednesday night, at the famous ballpark atop a hill in Los Angeles, the Dodgers eluded danger and salvaged their 106-win season, at least for one game. They annulled the Cardinals with a 3-1 triumph on a walk-off home run by Chris Taylor. The LA pitchers effectively subjugated the St. Louis hitters, but there was a lot more to it than that.

Let’s be honest here: the Cardinals succumbed to big-game, big-time stress during this gateway to the offseason. A resurgent lineup that bashed its way to 17 consecutive September wins quietly disappeared into the October winds.

The heinous offense was gone. The happy times were over. The laughter went silent. Someone pressed the mute button on the sound system, the music stopped, and party-goers were told to clear out. Yes, all things must pass — but in this instance did it have to go down so abruptly?

Where did the home runs go?

Where is Harry Bader, celebrating with the three kids, young Cardinals fans, behind the St. Louis dugout in September at Wrigley Field?

The historical hot streak was a good time, a grand time, a memorable time — and didn’t last, not even through one postseason game. The idea of the Cardinals marching through the NL and into the World Series was a daydream. And deep down, we knew that. But at least the daydream was there, and the daydream was ours.

We tried to keep the faith, even as reality began to set in during the Cardinals’ last game of 2021. A game that instantly became their most frustrating single game of 2021. You could see the confidence draining from the STL hitters, at-bat after at-bat. It was a slow and agonizing fall.

The Cardinals walked into Dodger Stadium and reverted to previous form with a puzzlingly inept offense that ranked 28th in the majors in runs from the beginning of May through the end of July.

In this wild-card event — facing a truly formidable opponent on the vast postseason stage — the Cardinals struggled to breathe when presented with several glorious chances to drive in runs and stun the Dodgers into numbness. But instead of overtaking the Dodgers, the Cardinals were overtaken by their own futility.

Based on regular-season form and records, a Dodger triumph was no surprise. They were supposed to win. But this wasn’t about how the Dodgers won the wild-card game; it’s about how the Cardinals lost it. It’s about how the Cardinals gave it away.

Taylor’s home run became a massive postseason moment only because the Cardinals set up his platform to become an October hero by their hideous, heart-sinking failure to land heavy punches. They had every opening that a team would need to jump in and knock the Dodgers down and out, but the Cards never connected. With the inability to deliver a damaging wallop of their own, the Cardinals let the Dodgers hang around, hang tough, and strike for the biggest blow of the night.

First inning.
Second inning.
Fifth inning.
Seventh inning.
Ninth innings.

The Cardinals lost the game — failure by failure — in those five innings. Add it all up, they had nine runners on base. And among other things, the Cards scooted into position to score on a sacrifice bunt, and with three stolen bases. The first inning was kept alive by a Dodger error, creating a two-out run-scoring opportunity.

In those five fateful innings the Cardinals had 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

They went 0 for 11.

Ballgame. Season over.

Instead of taking control of this game when handed five innings of opportunities to emerge with the victory, the Cardinals left themselves vulnerable. This game should have belonged to them, but the Cardinals never claimed it.

It’s big trouble when:

You do a terrific job of managing plate discipline to get future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer to throw 94 pitches over his 4 and ⅓ innings. Max didn’t have his best stuff. You had him cornered. But the only run scored against him came home on his own wild pitch. You let an endangered Max Scherzer go free on a night of struggle instead of his anticipated domination. And this was a monumental and consequential failure.

You have everything going in a way that you hoped for, but couldn’t plan. The first two hitters in the lineup, Tommy Edman and Paul Goldschmidt, reached base six times in their 10 combined plate appearances. Edman increased the pressure on the Dodgers by swiping two bases. And after all of this fine table-setting work by Edman and Goldy, the Cardinals came away with one run — when Edman scored on the Scherzer wild pitch in the first.

The combined .600 onbase percentage by Edman and Goldschmidt was a major advantage forfeited by No. 3 hitter Tyler O’Neill, cleanup hitter Nolan Arenado, and fifth-place hitter Dylan Carson. They combined to go 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position. And we can make that 0 for 9 by rightfully including No. 6 hitter Yadier Molina; he left a runner stranded at third base in the first.

Edman and Goldschmidt had four hits in their eight combined at-bats. The rest of the team went 1 for 24.

As mentioned, Edman and Goldy got on base six times in 10 plate appearances. The other Cardinals got on base three times in 29 PA.

All five Cardinal hits were singles. No homers, no doubles, no triples. Just five total bases.

Adam Wainwright did his part to keep the Cardinals on a favorable path, limiting the Dodgers to one run in 5 and ⅓ tough-minded innings. But the St. Louis bats never arrived to complete the job.

“Oh, yeah, we had our chances,” manager Mike Shildt said. “Yeah, for sure we had our chances. I thought we did a good job obviously in the first (inning.) We were opportunistic at every turn. Pretty much like we were all season. We get there, and right off the bat we take advantage of it.”

Take advantage of it?

With one dinky run when your team could have scored two or more on Scherzer right from the start? He’s living in Candyland. Again.

There were other annoying developments.

The Cardinals walked Cody Bellinger twice, the second being a two-out pass in the ninth from lefty T.J. McFarland that extended the inning for Taylor’s go-home bomb. Um, did the Cardinals happen to notice Bellinger’s .165 batting average and anemic .302 slugging percentage this season? Why were they treating him with such caution and anxiety? Did they believe that he’s the second coming of Duke Snider or something?

Let’s go to school: among 224 MLB hitters that had at least 350 plate appearances this season, Bellinger ranked 223rd in batting average and OPS. Hey, yeah, be extremely careful pitching to this dude. He’s very DANGEROUS. Then again it figures that the Cardinals would depart this way; they spent much of the season tormenting themselves and us with foolish, completely unnecessary walks that cost them games.

Shildt actually made a lot of good moves in this game. Some sharp tactics were on display. But his process for lifting Wainwright didn’t make much sense. Shildt declined to pull Waino for a pinch-hitter with a runner on first and two out in the top of the sixth. OK, I didn’t get bent out of shape over that.

But hold on, now. Shildt clearly had it in his mind to remove Wainwright if trouble surfaced in the bottom of the sixth. I say that because he pulled Waino after a one-out single by Trea Turner — a weak grounder that looked like a putt. Hardly a rocket to the moon. So if the manager was so ready to rush to the mound to with a quick hook in the sixth, then why not just pinch-hit for Wainwright and see if one of your bench guys can lash a double, or get on base?

And of course, Shildt can’t quit on Alex Reyes. He just wants the young man to succeed so much, he gets lost in the warm-hearted sentiment. Shildt wanted 12 pitchers — 11 relievers — on the wild-card roster. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made the more intelligent decision to go with nine relievers. To that point, Shildt had used only three relievers. The Cardinals had plenty of available arms in the bullpen. But Shildt can’t help himself.

Reyes was the wrong choice for two reasons:

1) Duke Snider — err, Bellinger — was on first base. And he would be looking to steal a base to get into scoring position for a single, or double. This season opponents swiped eight bases in nine attempts with Reyes on the mound — a success rate of 89%. For his career, opponents have stolen 12 bases in 16 shots with Reyes out there. I’m sure that Roberts and Bellinger were aware of Reyes’ inability to hold runners. The St. Louis manager just wanted a strikeout to end the inning and dismissed all other considerations.

2) Reyes has been serving up homers at an alarming rate during recent times. In his final 20 regular-season appearances Reyes was blasted for seven home runs in 82 at-bats, or one for every 11.7 ABs. The slugging percentage against him was .500. Reyes had a 1.52 ERA before the All-Star break and a 5.52 ERA after the break.

Dave Roberts should send Shildt an ice-cream cake or something as a gesture of gratitude.

Even though Shildt ignored the obvious hazards that popped up by using Reyes in that spot, the Cardinals lost this game primarily because their hitters couldn’t add to a 1-0 lead. When September turned into October, the lineup became the boys of slumber again.

The Redbirds absolutely frittered away a game that was winnable, a game that was theirs, a game that reminded us of why they had to go on a 17-0 miracle run just to make it to a one-game playoff.

I’ll always treasure the memories and happy times of watching the Cardinals win 17 in a row, mostly because of how they did it. It was wild and wonderful and demented. And so much damn fun.

And I think the Cardinals will be very good next season, especially if the front office gives in earnest about building a 100-win club instead of calibrating for a wild-card spot.

While the loss to the Dodgers was a natural and understandable expectation — no shame — I’m disappointed in how the Cardinals lost. They should be making their way to San Francisco today. There’s no need to hide from that truth — no matter how hard Shildt tries to spin the cotton candy for gullible media.

Predictably, in the postgame, Shildt tried to cast his men as baseball war heroes. Guts and grit and scratching and clawing and bravery and makeup and perseverance and persistence and belief and brotherhood.

Not to mention — also according to Shildt — the good winning plays on both sides of the ball, and how they fought and reacted to a tough environment, with so many fans in the stadium, and how every player held everything together — and not a dad-gummed man backed down from it.

That’s a beautiful tribute. Inspiring. Reminds me of scenes from the 2002 film, “We Were Soldiers,” with Mel Gibson starring as the immortal Lt. Col. Hal Moore.

Because I am a bad person, I could ask why — with so much talent and toughness and guts and grit and scratching and clawing and courage and making good plays on both sides of the ball and being opportunistic and fighting valiantly at hostile environment with all of those Dodger fans in there eating popcorn and cheering for Matt Beaty and hollering and stuff — why did the Cardinals score only one run, and that on a wild pitch, in nine of innings of at-bats?

Did I miss something?

Let me check the box score …

Yep, still 3-1.

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.

The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is available at 590thefan.com

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.