History will record the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2019 season ended with a nightmarish first inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals this week.
But in fact the season may well have ended well before their eventually hard-fought 7-4 loss at the hands of the Nationals on Tuesday, the fourth installment of an embarrassing sweep by the Nationals.
Oddly enough, the season may have ended the last week of the regular season, when four consecutive losses to Arizona and the Chicago Cubs forced the Cardinals to use ace Jack Flaherty to clinch the National League Central title the last day of the regular season. That meant he had to pitch later in the division series and the NLCS than the Cardinals would have preferred, leaving us to wonder if the playoff run might have turned out differently.
The season may have ended July 31, when the Cardinals front office failed to trade for a hitter to bolster a lineup plagued by occasionally maddening ineptitude most of the season, but especially as it came to a close. How much might that have helped the last four games, when the Cardinals managed just six runs (four of them earned) on 16 hits in 36 innings?
The season may have ended June 22, when closer Jordan Hicks suffered a torn ligament in his 105-mph pitching elbow, requiring surgery, ending his season and forcing the Cardinals to turn to the too-often-perturbed Carlos Martinez to close out wins.
Granted, that hardly would have mattered against the Nationals, who never trailed in the four games and held the Cardinals to a .130 batting average during the NLCS.
But, however dismaying the last four games have been, we can never know how the NLCS might have turned with another bat in the Redbird lineup or another arm in the rotation or bullpen.
But we know the long offseason begins with a soul-searching look for answers to the Cardinals’ eight-year championship drought:
Will starter Adam Wainwright want to return for another season? Will the Cardinals want him to? (I can’t imagine otherwise.)
Will St. Louis make a qualifying contract offer to Marcell Ozuna, if only to get a draft pick if and when he signs elsewhere, or in the event they want him here in a one-year deal while they wait for Dylan Carlson to get more seasoning at Triple-A?
What will they do with $19-million-man Matt Carpenter, a liability at third base – remember the derisive cheer from the Best Fans in Baseball when he fielded a foul ball cleanly earlier this postseason – even as he emerges from his worst season at the plate?
Will the Cardinals be willing to make Carpenter an expensive pinch-hitter and play Tommy Edman every day at third?
What can they do to get shortstop Paul DeJong untracked? He faded as the season went on, despite 30 home runs, and hit just .233.
Who takes the fifth starting job vacated by Michael Wacha? What of the fourth spot if Waino rides off into the sunset?
What to do with Dexter Fowler, who was 0-for-11 this series. Been there, done that: He hit .238 during the year but just .183 after Sept. 1 and .211 in the leadoff spot.
Can the Cardinals hope for a rebound from Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill, or do they have to summon Carlson earlier than might be best?
How will manager Mike Shildt respond to the criticism that came his way after sticking with a lineup clearly overmatched by the Nationals pitchers? In the wake of the sweep, will he become another Mike Matheny in the fans’ eyes? Or will they remember he had the Cardinals playing for the pennant in his first full season as manager?
Finally, is Yadier Molina running out of time to get one more ring? Can the Cardinals surround him with enough talent to reach October again?
Mostly, we wonder if this taste of the playoffs can become a habit under Shildt’s reign, with young starters coming into their prime, a lineup that needs another bat after not producing as well as it should have, and a bullpen that will have glaring issues until Hick’s return.
That is, unless team vice president John Mozeliak and General Manager Michael Girsch spend the winter improving this club again, much as they did a year ago when they traded for Goldschmidt, stuck with an often-electrifying Kolten Wong, and recognized the potential of Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and Giovanny Gallegos.
The season has ended. Time for the offseason work to begin.