Over the course of their 2022 National League Wild Card Series defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals saddled Phillies pitchers who have not been Cy Young contenders over the last two seasons with a 5.40 ERA. Against Zack Wheeler, who finished a close second in Cy Young Award balloting last season and Aaron Nola, who should get a top-two Cy Young finish of his own this year (he led all of baseball in the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement and finished second in the National League by the Baseball Reference version), the Cardinals scored zero runs.
Scoring runs against good starting pitchers is a difficult task–the Phillies themselves were only marginally better against José Quintana and Miles Mikolas, good starting pitchers who are nevertheless not in the same tier as Wheeler and Nola. The Cardinals had a good offense throughout the 2022 regular season, when they scored 775 runs, tied for fifth in the Major Leagues, though primarily against pitchers who are not among the ten or so best pitchers in the sport.
If this all sounds reductive and simplistic, all pointing to an incredibly boring thesis–that the Cardinals lost because they faced, unsurprisingly given that they made the postseason, a good baseball team, and that sometimes baseball teams lose to good baseball teams (or even bad baseball teams over the course of a three-game series)–you’re correct. The answer is simple and boring–a three-game series, even if one team had a substantial edge over the other (which wasn’t the case last weekend), is going to be at least somewhat random.
The Los Angeles Dodgers lost two consecutive games on eleven separate occasions this season–five times they lost three consecutive games and once they lost four in a row. This was a team that lost 51 total games, the fewest of any team in a full 162-game season in the last twenty seasons. They lost two games in a row basically twice a month, and this isn’t an ordinary team–it is an exceptionally good one. And at one point, they lost consecutive games at home to the Washington Nationals, the worst team in baseball this year–the winning pitchers were Andrés Machado and Erasmo Ramírez, hardly Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola.
If this sounds like I am making excuses for the poor performance of the St. Louis Cardinals offense last weekend, well, that’s because I am. It was ugly to watch, for sure, but this is the very nature of baseball–even good teams (which the Cardinals are), and even amazing teams (which the Cardinals aren’t), have lulls over a couple of days. As a wise man once said (R.I.P. to the immortal Cardinals tweeter @crying_birds, who is now in a better place–a much less Online existence), “Aaron Hill hit for the cycle twice in an 11 day period. Life is an arbitrary assortment of happenings.”
But this isn’t a satisfying answer–we demand that athletes (and frankly, we’re better about it in baseball than in most sports) have lost for reasons which border on morality. Winners and losers must be determined based on Want To or preparation rather than natural talent or (gasp) luck. If Paul Goldschmidt looks lost at the plate, it’s because he (or his hitting coach) failed, not because the best hitters in baseball occasionally have a bad couple of games. To attribute a loss to something other than deservedness makes an emotional attachment to the results of sports seem like an asinine way to spend our time, I type while making a Jim Halpert face to camera so pointed that my face freezes into place that way.
Yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of arguably the most truly silly and blessed moment of Cardinals postseason heroics of them all–the comeback from an early 6-0 deficit to the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series, capped off by a two-out, two-strike rally in the top of the ninth inning. Between that and Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals were seemingly in Terminator mode, a completely unkillable machine. But for as much as fans of the twenty-nine other teams in baseball would gripe about Cardinals Devil Magic, the outcomes felt deserved to loyal Cardinals supporters. David Freese had nerves of steel. Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma simply had the killer instinct when the Nationals were up against the ropes.
These things were probably mostly not true–Freese was actually Not Clutch based on FanGraphs’s measure of the stat (which, to be fair, is built on the conclusions of small sample sizes, though larger ones than a couple high-profile big moments in 2011 and 2012) and was Unclutch in the final four postseasons of his career. But it assigns order to a chaotic world, just as pinning the Cardinals’ offensive misfortunes on buffoonish players or an oafish hitting coach (God, what I wouldn’t give for replacing one single person to be the thing that singlehandedly jolted the Cardinals’ offense…) makes the problem of the heartache of the MLB postseason seem solvable. I attended both games last weekend; in my life, I have been to four Cardinals postseason games, during which the Cardinals entered the ninth inning with a shutout and lead twice, and the Cardinals have lost all four games, scoring a grand total of four runs. But sometimes you just lose four games in a row. The Dodgers even managed to do that this year. Three of those games were at home to the Phillies.
The closest thing that I can offer to a solution for the Cardinals is to avoid the three-game Wild Card Series–secure a top-two seed and at least then you can avoid the fate of having your postseason end within thirty-three hours of it starting (in the case of the Toronto Blue Jays, it ended within 25 hours and 12 minutes of it starting, in case you thought the Cardinals had it bad). But that isn’t an easy solution–the Cardinals finished eight games behind the #2 seed Atlanta Braves and even if they had won eight more games, unless several of them were against the Braves, they would have lost out on the tiebreaker of head-to-head performance. Trading for Juan Soto at the trade deadline wouldn’t have made the difference–heck, trading for Juan Soto in March almost certainly wouldn’t have made the difference–and having Juan Soto probably isn’t enough to single-handedly turn the Cardinals’ offense around over two awful games in October.
I understand the urge for accountability. I understand the desire for a scapegoat. But sometimes, you just lose.