The record books will show the St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Chicago Cubs in a deciding Game 4 Tuesday in the National League Division Series.
Fact is, they lost to the Cubs because of something that happened April 25. And Sept. 25. And Sept. 20. And June 8. And July 29. And May 26. And, even, Nov. 17, 2011.
Those dates reference injuries for key Cardinals players — and one much-overlooked playoff rules change — that had an enormous and ultimately decisive impact on the Cardinals’ shortest postseason journey since 2009.
This is not to say the Cubs do not deserve their berth in the National League Championship Series. By every measure, they were the better team in this series, outslugging and outpitching and outperforming the Cardinals at nearly every turn.
Like it or not, Cardinals fans, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta are very young and very good. They’re going to be around for a long, long time. And as the Cardinals brass ponder their offseason decisions, the National League Central is going to be an interesting and more challenging place to play for years to come.
And yet. And yet.
How different would this series have looked if the Cardinals had Adam Wainwright for a Game 1 start? And John Lackey for Game 2, instead of Game 1? And Carlos Martinez for Game 3? (This just in: That ball Jaime Garcia threw into right field in Game 2 is still rolling toward Soulard.)
It was inspiring to see Wainwright return from that Achilles tendon injury he suffered on April 25, willing his way into a relief role just five months after doctors said his 2015 season was over.
But it was equally dispiriting, watching his return and thinking what he might have meant at the front of the rotation as the playoffs began.
The same is true for Martinez, shut down with a shoulder ailment on Sept. 25 — five months to the day after Wainwright tore his Achilles in Milwaukee — and unavailable for postseason duty.
What if an aging but still dangerous Matt Holliday hadn’t missed most of the season with quad injuries suffered June 8 and July 29? This month the Cardinals’ No. 3 hitter looked tired and out of sorts and hardly a threat.
How would the series have turned out if a fully healthy Yadier Molina were behind the plate? After tearing a thumb ligament Sept. 20, Molina was clearly hampered and had to leave the series six innings into Game 3. Not coincidentally, the Cubs scored their deciding runs that game, and all six in their Game 4 victory, with backup Cardinals catcher Tony Cruz trying to sub for Molina.
Would this team have looked different, and played differently, if cleanup hitter Matt Adams hadn’t also succumbed to a quad injury on May 26? Come to think of it, Tommy Pham emerged as a late-season energy boost for the Redbirds only after missing a good chunk of the first half with, you guessed it, a spring training quad injury. (Hey, guys, ease up on the weightlifting and have a doughnut once in a while, will you?)
And have we already forgotten the Cardinals’ tragic loss last October, when Oscar Taveras was killed in a car crash 10 days after the Cardinals bowed out to San Francisco in the NLCS?
Oh, and one more thing: Why was a 100-win Cardinals team forced to play a 97-win Cubs team in the first round of the playoffs, instead of a 92-win Dodgers team or a 90-win Mets team? This is why: When baseball announced on Nov. 17, 2011 that was was going to a one-game wild card game, it scrapped the rule that the team with the best record couldn’t play the wild card winner from its own division in the first round.
This year, that left the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates (with 98 wins) — the best three teams in baseball, 295 wins all told — stuck in a round-robin affair guaranteed to eliminate two of the clubs before we even reached the league championship series.
Not that facing the Cubs in a best-of-seven NLCS would have produced a different outcome. But a longer series surely would have had a different set of twists and turns, and Wainwright and Molina and Holliday might have been more healthy (and ready for greater responsibilities) by the second playoff round.
Granted, the Cardinals were not the only team with injuries this year. But what other team lost its ace, its No. 3 hitter, its No. 4 hitter, its third starter and two key relief pitchers as the season went along (and still got to 100 wins)? Add in the thumb injury for Molina, and the Cardinals were clearly a compromised club as the postseason dawned.
And yet. And yet.
If Garcia makes a quick throw to home plate instead of an errant throw to first base in Game 2, that game and the series goes very differently ...
If the Cardinals – getting to Arrieta for four runs by the time he departed Game 3 – had found a way to win that game ...
If the Cardinals — who rallied from behind in both Games 3 and 4 — had gotten better relief work from the likes of Kevin Siegrist and Lance Lynn and Seth Maness ...
If Matheny had opted for an alternative to Holliday in left, or if Michael Wacha wasn’t running on fumes, or if Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong had hit better ...
It doesn’t work that way, does it? Such is the stark reality of October baseball: The better team won this series, and won it handily. And I wonder if Cardinals fans will put aside their good-natured rivalry with Cubs fans to root for Chicago in the NLCS against New York or Los Angeles.
You’d like to think Midwesterners would prefer one of their own.
And yet. And yet.