0 for 12 with runners in scoring position. Zero extra-base hits. Three totals players who got any hits. The St. Louis Cardinals lost last night and concluded an extremely up-and-down season on a sour note and they have nobody to blame but their offense.
Over their final twenty meaningful games in the regular season–until they clinched a postseason berth and, justifiably, took their foot off the pedal–the Cardinals averaged 6.2 runs per game, and it seemed as though the lineup had finally found their groove. On Wednesday, the Cardinals trotted out a lineup in which six of the eight non-pitchers were above-average hitters in 2021, and one of the exceptions, Tommy Edman, was the guy who provided 60% of the team’s hits and was by far the team’s most valuable player in the game (the other exception, Yadier Molina, was absolutely awful, going hitless while swinging at the first pitch in three of his four plate appearances). But for one night, at least, the lineup went cold. The team’s one run was a one-man tour-de-force from Edman, who singled, stole a base, smartly advanced to third base on a fly ball, and snuck home on a wild pitch. The Cardinals never even drove in a run. It was like they scored a run by accident.
This happens in baseball all the time–the Houston Astros scored more runs this season than any other team in the sport and were still shut out seven times and held to just one run eleven more. This may happen to the Astros later today against Lance Lynn (one can only dream), but it won’t end their season, because unlike the Cardinals, the Houston Astros won their division and thus will not be subjected to a four-hour stress gauntlet with their season on the line. Even though the problem last night for the Cardinals by far was the offense, the more fixable problems are the ones which led to finishing five games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
Mike Shildt has come under some fire for his decision to pitch Alex Reyes in the ninth inning last night, but as has often been the case when Shildt is criticized for his bullpen management, the biggest problem is that there were no good options. The Cardinals have three mostly trusted relievers at this point–Giovanny Gallegos, Luís Garcia, and T.J. McFarland, in some order–and those three pitchers were all used prior to Reyes entering the game. Gallegos, per Shildt after the game, was unavailable for the ninth inning, and McFarland wasn’t exactly lights-out in walking Cody Bellinger, the lefty he was seemingly in the game to handle who was a worse hitter in 2021 than Andrew Knizner. So if not Reyes, whom? Genesis Cabrera, a fellow southpaw to face Chris Taylor, a right-handed lefty-masher? Jack Flaherty, who is still recovering from an injury-plagued season and could easily be viewed as the 2021 answer to 2014 Michael Wacha if things went awry? I mean, maybe?
What’s unfortunate is that Mike Shildt did make a legitimately huge blunder in this game that will almost certainly never be revisited because the Cardinals basically withstood it, and if I am going to defend Shildt’s process with regards to Reyes despite unfavorable results, I feel obliged to critique his indefensible process of keeping Adam Wainwright in to bat a second and third time. After a shaky third inning, walking two batters and getting bailed out of a bases-loaded jam by a Tommy Edman to Paul Goldschmidt double play, Wainwright batted in the top of the fourth with two outs and a runner on. I would have pulled Wainwright for a pinch-hitter here, but it’s a bit of a toss-up as to what to do, though allowing a home run to Justin Turner to lead off the bottom of the fourth is not a great omen. That Wainwright batted for himself in the sixth inning is absolutely inexcusable–once again with Harrison Bader on first base, once again with two outs, but at this point with Wainwright at 83 pitches. Despite his reputation, Adam Wainwright is far inferior at the plate to any of the six position players on the Cardinals’ bench, and he was at a position on the mound where one single allowed meant he was pulled. If I were managing, Wainwright certainly would not have pitched in the sixth inning, though if the Cardinals were expected to win this game using only three relievers, I suppose he needed to go deep.
On the whole, though, Adam Wainwright played well and certainly outpitched Max Scherzer, who was bounced in the fifth inning after walking three batters and not showing his typically overpowering stuff. Wainwright made one mistake pitch to Justin Turner, but his curveball was largely effective, striking out five and making an excellent defensive play on the mound, robbing a Justin Turner comebacker.
The real problem was a terrible offensive performance outside of Tommy Edman, who manufactured the team’s run and notched two more hits, and Harrison Bader, who reached base on three occasions, twice being hit by a pitch and walking once. Edmundo Sosa, who also could have credibly been charged with two errors, looked lost at the plate. Nolan Arenado never reached base. Paul DeJong and Tyler O’Neill’s swings and misses in the top of the ninth looked absolutely hopeless.
The Cardinals’ goal this off-season shouldn’t be building an offense that won’t fall silent for games, an impossible task. It should be to build a team capable of avoiding the one-game play-in round. It isn’t as though the Milwaukee Brewers, a fine team but one which needed its starting rotation to pitch well above their likely true talent to win the division, are an insurmountable foe. The Cardinals offense last night sucked, but the best way to overcome that problem is to bolster the starting rotation, with the residual effect of bolstering the bullpen, enough so that one rough night won’t decide the season.