An aphorism holds that the only way to eat a hippopotamus is one bite at a time.
What no one mentions is that sometimes the hippopotamus bites back.
Dakota Hudson allowed seven runs (four earned) on only 15 pitches in Tuesday’s first inning as the Cardinals’ cataclysmic collapse was completed with a 7-4 loss to the Washington Nationals, who swept the NLCS and advanced to their first World Series in franchise history.
“They beat us, clearly,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Hats off to them. They played really good baseball. They pitched very, very well. Their bats heated up as the series went. They played in the game the right way. It’s a class group.”
After Hudson’s early struggles, Adam Wainwright would be the first pitcher in from the bullpen to serve as a life raft.
Wainwright, who threw 99 pitches in a Game 2 start only three days prior, would allow two inherited runners to score on a single by Trea Turner. They would be the last Washington runs of the night as Wainwright, Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, and Andrew Miller combined to provide 7 2/3 innings of scoreless relief and breathing room as the Redbirds searched desperately for a last-minute solution to their offensive woes.
“We fought back in and had a chance to win the game,” Wainwright said. “It had 2012 written all over it, didn’t it? Didn’t it feel like that for a minute? I was feeling that same kind of vibes.”
A fifth inning rally gave the Cardinals four shots against the beleaguered Washington bullpen, but the first inning fireworks were eventually too bright to overcome. With a Washington starting pitcher – Patrick Corbin - finally on the ropes, Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna were due up in the order after José Martínez drove a two-run double.
Martínez would advance no further than second as Goldschmidt and Ozuna would both strike out. Goldschmidt’s strikeout was his seventh consecutive, and he would finish the series 1-for-16 with 10 punchouts.
“There’s not one thing you can point to,” Goldschmidt said. “I didn’t play well enough to help us win. One hit in four games, that’s not gonna cut it. It came back to bite us.”
Ozuna’s series wasn’t much better: 3-for-16 with eight strikeouts. The two weren’t alone, as the Cardinals recorded 48 whiffs among their 108 outs in the series. The Nationals pitching was praiseworthy, but the Cardinals bear a great deal of responsibility for their own struggles.
“It’s just a blend, right? It’s a blend of their ability,” Shildt said. “I was just talking to a couple of the guys and just honest evaluation of it. We could have always done better. Talking about three elite strikeout guys in this league. So it’s a combination of things.”
St. Louis’s season-long resiliency briefly resurfaced in the eighth, as Matt Carpenter dug in against Daniel Hudson with two out and the bases loaded, representing the go-ahead run. A sharp ground ball to Brian Dozier at second skipped up into Dozier’s chest – Nationals fans everywhere felt the same sensation – but was recovered promptly and got DC out of the jam.
That was the moment, after a long series of maybes, when finality sank in. Pete Kozma would not walk through the clubhouse door. The only broken hearts on South Capitol street would belong to the visitors.
“I thought the one he fouled off was probably his best pitch. But just get a swing on,” Shildt said of his hopes for Carpenter’s moment. “Clearly, he would have liked a Roy Hobbs kind of moment and hit one out the ballpark.”
“We had our opportunity, and they played better than us,” Goldschmidt said. “Just learn from it as a group and individually and try to play better and take that into the offseason.”
Ozuna’s ninth inning single came in what may have been his last plate appearance with the Cardinals, as he’s due to be a free agent this winter. So too is Michael Wacha, who didn’t recover from a shoulder strain in time to be available for the postseason.
Wainwright, as well, is on an expiring contract, and he’s been non-committal about his plans for next season. As the club attempts to synthesize the season’s experiences, they’re well aware that this group, as it currently exists, will not be together again in precisely the same way.
“You always learn from things,” Shildt acknowledged. “I will say this: I didn’t feel like anybody made any of the moments in the postseason bigger than they were. I felt like people were present, including our staff, myself. I’m not saying we made all the right decisions, but I’m saying we were into the competition. We were aware what was taking place. We normalized that during the course of the year.
“But experience is a good teacher. You always look to grow from it. We will.”
Shildt entered the postgame press conference room with the sounds of celebration echoing through the depths of the stadium. Technicians and media members were dressed in protective gear to shield them from the celebration they would soon wade into in the Nationals clubhouse – a celebration which Shildt and the Cardinals were denied.
He took his seat and was asked how he was feeling.
“I’ve been better,” he said. And he smiled.
“The sun’ll come up tomorrow.”