If the magic of a 100-win season comes to naught this week in Wrigley Field, the St. Louis Cardinals will have no one to blame but themselves.
Thanks to one nightmarish five-run, two-error second inning – in the span of five batters, the Chicago Cubs scored three times without hitting the ball out of the infield, twice not past the pitcher, in a 6-3 win – the two teams are tied 1-1 in the series.
And consider this: The Cardinals find themselves in Wrigleyville Monday and Tuesday for Games 3 and 4, with no guarantee they can even get back to St. Louis on Thursday.
“I didn't make pitches when I needed to make them against a good lineup,” said losing St. Louis pitcher Jaime Garcia, who threw away a bunt that figured mightily in the Cubs’ five-run outburst. “My bad. It was a mistake, a mental mistake. It should have never happened.”
Garcia lasted only two innings – he and the Cardinals said he was suffering from a virus after being removed from the game – and was tagged for five runs, all unearned, after he and second baseman Kolten Wong made throwing errors.
“To me, they’re all earned (runs),” Garcia said. “It should have never happened. It started with that bunt. When something behind you happens, you've got to be able to block it out and still make pitches. I've been really good at that all year, and I didn't do that today.”
The postgame media scrum nearly pinned Garcia inside his clubhouse cubicle, but he wasn’t the only Game 2 goat: Wong had the throwing error and later mishandled a throw on what could have been a double-play, and the middle of the St. Louis lineup – the third through sixth hitters – went 1-for-16 with an infield single.
On Monday, the Cardinals must find a way to solve all-but-certain Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA in 33 starts, or fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-five series. Win or lose, the Game 4 start for St. Louis for now would fall to scuffling right-hander Lance Lynn, who pitched an inning in relief Saturday after Garcia’s meltdown.
If the Cardinals are unduly alarmed, they weren’t showing it Saturday. And perhaps that’s the right approach for a team that’s been in 40 postseason games since Mike Matheny became manager in 2012.
“We came in here (after the game) and we turned the music on right away,” said Cardinals ace and team leader Adam Wainwright. “We have been through this playoff thing enough to know that you cannot let one playoff loss get you down. They played a great game today, and got timely hits, and pushed some runners across when they needed to.
“They did that more times than we did, but next game we’re going to be up, we’re going to be excited. Of course we’d rather be 2-0 right now, but 1-1 is not the end of the world.”
Yeah, it’s not the end of the world. But I can see it from where I’m standing.
Arrieta poses the most immediate and most imposing challenge, with nine shutout innings against Pittsburgh in the wild card game Tuesday and the gaudiest pitching resume in the game right now. He led the majors in wins in 2015, was second in ERA, and allowed just 150 hits – while striking out 236 batters – in 220 innings.
"He's just another pitcher we've got to go beat,” Wong said. “We obviously know how good he is. We know what kind of pitcher he is. We're going to go up there and put some good at-bats together and see if we can get him.”
Failing that, the Cardinals will play an all-hands-on-deck game Tuesday, the offseason looming suddenly for a team that led the majors with 100 wins and appeared to be in the driver’s seat after its 4-0 win in Game 1 Friday.
The Cubs had a little bit to say about that Saturday, appearing more poised and more experienced as the game played out.
“They’re not overwhelmed by anything, and that’s what sets them apart,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of his young club. “I’ve been talking about winning a wild card game and maybe two out of three right now -- and who knows where this is going to take us?”
No telling where it might take the Cubs. But I know where it might leave the Cardinals.
And so it was no wonder Busch Stadium was so quiet as a record playoff crowd of 47,859 filed out of the ballpark Saturday night. Those fans must confront a very real possibility: They might well not return to Busch until the home opener April 11, 2016.
That’s exactly six months from today – a long, long time to think about how things came to pass Saturday afternoon.