St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinals’ slump is historic. Is it because of their hitters or the Nats’ pitchers?

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has been firm in his conviction that he won’t respond to the ongoing struggles of his team’s offense in a knee-jerk fashion.

If he doesn’t respond fast enough, he’s likely to have his legs taken out from under him.

Saturday’s listless performance at the plate somehow managed to outpace Friday’s struggles, and the Cardinals fell 3-1 to the Washington Nationals. They now trail Washington two games to none in the National League Championship Series.

The Cardinals have scored just one run in the first two games of the series, and that came as the result of a line drive that Washington center fielder Michael A. Taylor misplayed into a double. They have a total of four hits in the two games and have looked much more like the team which ranked in the bottom of third in most offensive categories this season than the team which hung a shocking 10-run inning on the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday evening.

“As a group, we could probably have better at bats, but we’re facing good pitching,” third baseman Matt Carpenter said. “That’s the bottom line. I think there’s a balance; a little bit of we could do a little better, but the other side of it is they’ve done really good. So, when you match up with them pitching really well and us not having as good at bats as we’d like, the result is what you’re seeing.”

What we’re seeing is offensive futility to an historic degree. The team’s only hit in game one came from pinch hitter José Martínez. As a result, including a quiet end to the decisive game of the Division Series, the Cardinals went 58 consecutive at bats without a hit from a starting position player.

That’s the longest such postseason streak of any team in Major League Baseball history.

The Cardinals hold that record by a full 20 at bats, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“Can’t ignore the fact we have been shut down pretty much for two games in a row,” Shildt said. “We won’t make excuses for it. There’s a lot of variables to it. But the reality is we haven’t been able to get it done.

“We got to figure out a way to be that much better, and that’s a challenge right now for us. We got the guys in the clubhouse that will figure out what that looks like.”

The variables that Shildt mentioned range from the cold weather conditions to the tricky shadows during Saturday’s afternoon gameplay to the surpassing abilities of the Washington pitching staff. Each factor into the struggles at the plate, but none can account for an inability to even lift the ball to the outfield in game two’s first four innings.

“We get a guy like Max (Scherzer), as good as he is, and combine the fact you’re facing tough shadows, it’s tough for any offense,” Carpenter said. “But it’s not an excuse. It’s just something that we dealt with today, and they did a better job than we did.”

Adam Wainwright, who turned in his second consecutive sterling postseason start without a victory to show for it, was a circumspect figure in a tense clubhouse. As is his usual mode, he tried to shoulder blame for the game’s ultimate disposition.

“Disappointing knowing if I put up a zero in the eighth there, we’re tied 1-1 potentially,” Wainwright said. “That’s what I’m really down about right now.

“It all comes down to the end of the game. That’s the way it is in the playoffs. You’re pitching against very tough pitchers like Max, you’ve gotta match zeroes, and I couldn’t do it today. He pitched great.”

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer throws during the first inning of Game 2 of the baseball National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) Jeff Roberson AP

Scherzer carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning one day after Aníbal Sánchez did the same into the eighth in Game 1. Scherzer and Sánchez are the only two pitchers in Major League history to throw more than one game of six or more innings pitched with zero or one hits allowed.

They’ve each done it twice, and both times back to back with each other. In addition to these first two games, they also accomplished the feat in the ALCS for the 2013 Detroit Tigers.

“It’s good starting pitching,” Carpenter emphasized, “and the narrative’s not going to change any point in this series. Hopefully I’m standing here after the next one and we’re talking about how great a job we did against their starter, but so far they’ve beat us.”

For Wainwright, who’s at the end of a one-year deal with the team and, maybe, at the end of his career, there’s still hope.

“I didn’t feel like today was my last day,” Wainwright said. “I feel like this team’s gonna get me back home, give me a chance to hopefully close it out, but we’ll see.”

Those are far from definitive claims, but one part of history does fall into the favor of the Cardinals. Sánchez and Scherzer’s 2013 Tigers eventually lost the series that started with such dominance to the Boston Red Sox. That series turned on a grand slam bolt from Boston’s David Ortiz, and Carpenter emphasized that one inning of progress could be enough to turn things around.

“We’re playing for our season here,” Carpenter said. “We’re as invested in this as any group can be. We’re working on it. We’re just getting beat right now.”

The time is ticking. The work must be fast.