THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Let’s get to this Sunday morning. Today, I’m holding off on taking a deeper look at the 2022 Cardinals or peeking ahead to 2023. I’ll start jumping into those areas beginning Monday. And as always, I’ll offer unfiltered thoughts and blunt opinions.
Today, let’s put the wrapper on the team’s brutal elimination by the Philadelphia Phillies. And congrats to the Phillies, the more tough-minded competitors, played surprisingly clean defense, and didn’t freeze and crack under pressure. The Phillies also had double-barrel right-handers Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola as their starting pitchers in this sad mini-series in St. Louis, and the Cardinals were simply overmatched.
Thanks to Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina for giving us such a moving, memorable and wonderfully unique final season. It was special in every way … except for the unhappy ending, of course. That’s sports. Someone has to lose, even the team with the two icons and a powerfully sentimental and sensational story line. That makes the team’s premature exit even harder to shrug off. No more Pujols. No more Yadi … and this team couldn’t even stretch out the last call by getting to a third game.
The Phillies came in with hunger, attitude and starters that dominated a pitiful group of St. Louis hitters. The Phillies feared nothing. As I wrote before Game 1, all of the pressure in this first-round series was steaming around the Cardinals going into the competition. I thought the Cardinals would raise their performance, get back to work, and find a way to advance to the next round. I was wrong. We all knew that Wheeler and Nola were a intimidating threat to the Cardinals’ postseason existence … but I was startled by the swiftness of the home team’s submission and surprised by the meek at-bats in big spots. The Cardinals’ homefield advantage disappeared when the offense disappeared.
TOP 5 REASONS WHY THE CARDINALS CRASHED
1. The offense was a no-show, just as I feared. I was a bit of a nag during September, pointing out how it’s risky for teams that shut it down and shift into the cruise-control mode once they have a postseason spot secured. You can’t flip a switch and decide to be competitive one day, then yawn through other days. The Cardinals lost their urgency and their competitive edge after clearing the debris from the NL Central and taking a safe and unshakable lead over the fading Milwaukee Brewers. It cost them.
Offensively, the Cardinals downshifted over the final month, casually taking a break and putting up low runs-scored totals in too many games. During their last 15 regular-season games the Cardinals failed to hit two home runs 13 times and went 4-9 in those contests. (WIth the two losses to the Phillies, we can update that record to 4-11. Sept. 1 the Cards were a bottom-half offense in the National League. This team wasn’t ready – mentally – to take on Wheeler and Nola.
The two nasty starters combined for 13 shutout innings, yielding only six hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts. The Cardinals got to the Philly bullpen when rookie Juan Yepez lofted a two-run homer to give his team a 2-0 lead in Game 1. But from that point on, the Phils relievers allowed only one earned run in 4 and ⅓ innings of work. Wheeler and Nola are terrific, but the Cardinals succumbed to them with shockingly little resistance. And the Cards didn’t exactly shred the Philadelphia bullpen.
The grim bottom line: in 18 innings of at-bats against Phillie pitchers the Cardinals scored three total runs – two of which were plated on one swing by one player, Juan Yepez. The Cardinals got on the board in only two of the 18 innings. In addition to producing only three total runs the Cardinals squeaked for only one extra-base hit, mustered 12 singles and five walks and struck out 15 times. In the two losses St. Louis batted .185 with a .254 OBP and .231 slugging percentage and went 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position.
2. Let’s be candid and straight about this: Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado let the team down. They let themselves down too — and nobody feels worse about this than they do. These guys carried the offense for most of the season, and were valuable tag-team presence at the plate and in the field. But as I always say: the regular season is separate from the postseason. And in the best-of-three wild-card format, a bad game or two can kill your hopes.
In a dreadful two-game showing against the Phillies, the two regular-season MVP candidates combined for 1 hit in 15 at-bats and struck out six times. As I wrote on the morning of Game 1, hours before the first pitch: if Goldschmidt and Arenado don’t hit, the Cardinals will lose the series.
3. Here are some related factoids that expand the view of Goldschmidt and Arenado’s recent trend of postseason flops.
– When we include last year’s NL wild-card match, the Cardinals have played three postseason games with Goldschmidt and Arenado as teammates. The Redbirds lost all three games, scoring four crummy runs in 27 innings of at-bats. And in the three defeats Goldschmidt and Arenado combined for 2 hits in 22 at-bats (both singles) with no RBI and a 28 percent strikeout rate. A near total failure offensively.
– Arenado is 1 for 12 in his three postseason games for the Cardinals. In eight career playoff games for the Rockies and Cards, Arenado has batted .152 with a .143 OBP and .242 slug. That’s a .385 OPS. And his teams had a 1-7 record in the eight games.
— In his last 10 postseason games for the Cardinals, Goldschmidt has only 5 hits in 39 at-bats for an alarmingly low .128 batting average and alarmingly high strikeout rate of 37 percent. His OPS in the 10 games was .517. As a reference point, backup catcher Andrew Knizner had a .517 OPS in the 2021 regular season. With a dormant Goldy in the lineup, the Cardinals have lost nine of their last 10 postseason games. In the weekend collapse against the Phillies, Goldy was hitless in seven at-bats and struck out four times.
— This note from Michael Baumann of FanGraphs: “Goldschmidt kept swinging through fastballs over the heart of the plate. If Goldschmidt wins the NL MVP award, he will deserve it, but it bears mentioning that he went 0-for-3 on Friday. Then on Saturday he had the highest average leverage of any batter in the game, and went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Three of those outs came with runners on base.”
— Perhaps there was some connection between the 2022 regular-season and ‘22 postseason with these two stars. Arenado hit .227 with a weak .347 slugging percentage over the final month, and homered only twice in 106 plate appearances. As for Goldshmidt, he failed to homer in his final 21 regular-season games, slugging an anemic .324. And in his final 33 games of the regular season, Goldschmidt had two home runs in 135 plate appearances and slugged .348. I don’t know what went wrong for these two outstanding players, but both lost their mojo late in the regular season and the funk intensified during the postseason. I wonder: was Goldschmidt playing hurt?
4. Oli Marmol was overwhelmed by pressure late in Game 1 and cost the Cardinals a win. And you can make the case that Marmol also cost his team the series. We went over his several miscues — including the absurd, too-early removal of starting pitcher Jose Quintana — in Saturday’s column here at “Scoops.” That decision set off a chain reaction that led to pure agony. By failing to intervene in time to pull his frighteningly wild and out of control closer Ryan Helsey in the top of the ninth inning – and letting Helsley burn away with a ridiculously high 33-pitch count – Marmol gave the Phillies an opening to grab the glory by erasing a two-run deficit with only two outs to go in the ninth. This avoidable implosion led to a searing 6-3 loss by the home team, and the aftershocks could be felt in Game 2.
The Cardinals staggered into Saturday’s game and proceeded to get shut out for nine innings, checked to four hits in 25 at-bats by Nola and three relievers. We wondered how the Cards would respond to Friday’s painful, panicky loss. By and large their hitters had no response. Starter Miles Mikolas and three relievers did just fine, limiting the Phillies to two runs and four hits. (But the five walks weren’t good for my blood pressure.)
Marmol’s mess-up with Helsley brought back ghastly memories of Mike Matheny’s incomprehensible decision to bring the inactive, injury-plagued and hopelessly rusty Michael Wacha into the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS at San Francisco to toss up a three-run, walk-off, series-clinching home run to Travis Ishikawa.
5. The Cardinals’ soft schedule was a factor in their demise. The Redbirds faced little competition in the junkyard known as the NL Central. They took charge of the division by winning 31 out of 42 games in a hot stretch that began July 15. Give them credit for the excellent, dominant run that doomed the Brewers. But as I’ve repeatedly pointed out, 41 percent of STL’s regular-season wins were scooped up against the tanking-rebuilding-whatever Cubs, Reds and Pirates. Including the two postseason losses to the Phillies, the Cardinals were 55-52 this season when playing games that did not include the Cubs, Reds and Pirates as the opponent.
Counting the weekend losses to Philadelphia, the Cardinals were 30-37 this season against teams above .500 and had a minus 27 run differential in those meetings. When the Birds played a team of .500 or worse, they went 63-34 with a plus 157 run differential. Hey, it’s fun to beat up on downtrodden teams, and that can get you into the postseason. But stomping through the mush of an easy schedule probably doesn’t help get you ready for the postseason. Nor does going half-speed in September. Indeed the Cardinals were exposed by the Phillies – a hardwired group that had to fight its way through the rugged terrain of the NL East to reach the playoffs. The Phillies weren’t awesome down the stretch, losing six of their final 10 games. But they had to battle to survive, and showed heart by overcoming a late five-game losing streak that would have ruined a wimpy team. The Cardinals went into neutral and mostly checked out, displaying significant signs of life only when Pujols motivated them through his historic chase and capture of 700 career home runs.
FINALLY, LET’S CLOSE WITH THIS …
The Cardinals are 1-9 in their last 10 postseason games, having averaged 2.1 runs in their nine losses – with nine runs coming in one game. Which means they scored 10 runs total in their other eight defeats.
The Cardinals have lost 17 of their last 22 postseason tilts going back to the final three games of the 2014 NLCS. And yes, poor offense is the common trait. This offense vanishes too often. In their last 17 postseason setbacks the Cardinals were shut out four times, held to one run four times, and scored three runs or fewer in 11 of the 17. The cast of hitters has changed, and multiple batting coaches have been scapegoated … but the impotence remains.
From 1996 through 2013, the Cardinals were No. 2 in the majors with 66 postseason victories and had a postseason winning percentage of .541. Their peak run included four NL pennants and two World Series titles from 2004 through 2013.
But since winning their most recent NL pennant in 2013, the Cardinals are 9-19 in the postseason for a winning percentage of .321. Twelve MLB teams have won more postseason games since the start of the 2014 tournament: Dodgers (47), Astros (45), Royals (22), Braves (22), Cubs (19), Yankees (18), Red Sox (18), Nationals (17), Giants (16), Rays (15), Guardians (14) and Blue Jays (10.)
You can say that times have changed.
The Cardinals still deserve a lot of praise for getting to the postseason as often than they do. Only one franchise, the Yankees, have qualified for more postseasons (19) than the Cardinals (16) since 2000. But the frequency of playoff appearances loses luster when a team can’t take advantage of the opportunities to stack postseason wins.
The Cardinals have lost six of their last eight postseason series – plus the 2021 Wild Card game. A franchise that once excelled in the postseason setting has turned into a bit player, a non-factor, on the October stage. The Cardinals must find ways to reverse this disturbing pattern.
Programming note: Will Leitch and Bernie will be recording a new “Seeing Red” podcast on Monday morning in an attempt to make sense of what just happened … and perhaps take a look at what should be done to fix this little postseason problem going forward.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his 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 show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.