It happened so quickly that there was hardly time to be upset.
After a thrilling Division Series victory against the Atlanta Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves standing on the proverbial tracks with a train coming through, and the Washington Nationals blew right through them en route to their first National League pennant.
When a team is swept without ever holding a lead and is outscored 20-6 in those four games, it can be difficult to sort through the wreckage to find answers which explain the issues.
Having now some separation from the series and some time to compose a postmortem, here’s a rundown of some of the issues which contributed to the ignominious end to the Cardinals’ season.
They didn’t have a backup plan
Manager Mike Shildt was criticized on many fronts for his allegiance to struggling hitters throughout the postseason. Players like Dexter Fowler and Paul DeJong started in nearly every game (Fowler was on the bench of the fourth game against Washington) despite contributing very little at the plate.
With an offense that was desperate for a spark, frustrations ran rampant throughout the fan base every day when the lineup was announced. Unfortunately, Shildt didn’t have much of a choice because of the decisions he either made or didn’t make earlier in the calendar.
DeJong started every game at shortstop because Yairo Muñoz was scarcely used down the stretch and not really in a position to take competitive at bats once the postseason started.
Tommy Edman, one of the club’s best hitters in the last two months, has significant minor league history at shortstop but didn’t play there in the majors at all this season.
Randy Arozarena, one of the most productive outfielders in Triple-A this season, also received sparing playing time upon his promotion, blunting his edge and causing Shildt to hesitate to expose him more at the season’s most crucial time.
By relying too much on his starters during the regular season, Shildt may have inhibited them down the stretch. DeJong, to be sure, showed signs of fatigue, and the Cardinals should prioritize finding a way to maximize his effectiveness by getting him more days off his feet in the 2020 season.
If younger players offer the potential of a burst of energy, they should be given a chance to show it off. Greater lineup balance could create greater team balance.
They weren’t ready for the stage
The Major League postseason is an entirely different level of pressure as compared to the regular season.
The Cardinals, having missed out on the playoffs in the past three years, had a roster of relative neophytes who were getting their first tastes of playing this late into the season. On top of the physical toll of the extra games, it would be hard not to think that the intensity of the spotlight caused at least a few players to blink.
Dakota Hudson was uneven in his sole start of the first round and then left his powerful sinker in the middle of the strike zone in the final game in Washington. The Nationals, sensing weakness, jumped all over early strikes, and Hudson was charged with seven runs (four earned) on only 15 pitches.
Harrison Bader unleashed a colorful rant about pitch selection following the second game in Atlanta and didn’t see the lineup again until the panic button was pushed for the final game. Arozarena created some embarrassment for himself and his manager by live streaming a private motivational speech after the first-round clinch. Big deal? No. Rookie mistake? You bet.
This is a mistake that can only be treated with time.
Despite the lack of previous results, the Nationals are a veteran team (the oldest in the National League this season) stocked with players who understand how to prepare for the stakes. The next run through the postseason won’t catch these Cardinals quite so wide eyed, and they’ll be better for their battle tests.
The hitting approach seems specious
Upon hiring Jeff Albert to be the hitting coach last summer, the Cardinals’ brass raved both publicly and privately about the benefits they expected to reap from his more modern approach to the offensive components of the game.
They cleared out organizational stalwarts Mark Budaska and George Greer – both of whom were elevated to the big-league staff last year to provide a bailout – and recently hired Russ Steinhorn, a coach who fits with Albert’s philosophy, to coordinate the minor league staffs.
It did not take multiple viewings through a slow-motion camera to determine that Washington’s Patrick Corbin was going high with his fastball and low with his slider, but the Cardinals waved through each in Game 4 of the LCS. They struck out 48 times in those four games against the Nationals, an unacceptable total no matter who was on the mound and what the shadows were doing.
Several players seemed to spend the season struggling to connect with Albert. The Cardinals have committed to his return for the 2020 season and have invested both money and effort into integrating his philosophies throughout their system.
Unless a winter of work leads to tangible results, though, Albert is likely to spend next season as one of the most scrutinized assistant coaches anywhere in the Major Leagues.