ST. LOUIS -- In a season full of magical moments provided by Albert Pujols’ run to 700 home runs, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina’s push to becoming the most durable battery in NL/AL history and Paul Goldschmidt making a strong case for the NL MVP Award, the St. Louis Cardinals simply ran out of tricks in the Wild Card Series against the Phillies.
The Cardinals had few answers against the big arms of Phillies starters Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, and they never mustered nearly enough offense to be a real threat in the series. A day after squandering a two-run lead in the ninth inning to drop Game 1 in back-breaking fashion, the Cardinals went out with a whimper offensively Saturday and lost 2-0 at Busch Stadium.
In being swept in the best-of-three series, St. Louis has lost nine of its last 10 playoff games, dating back to Game 1 of the 2019 NLCS.
“We thought we were going to come out with a series win and we felt really confident coming into [Saturday], but obviously we just ran into Nola and he pitched a great game,” Cardinals star third baseman Nolan Arenado said. “It sucks to lose like this, especially when we had opportunities to get guys in.”
The Cardinals’ hopes basically died in the eighth inning when Arenado and Goldschmidt -- expected top finishers in the NL MVP race -- struck out after Lars Nootbaar had walked and Pujols had singled sharply down the third-base line. With a roaring crowd of 48,515 -- the largest in playoff history at Busch Stadium III -- Goldschmidt swung and missed at what likely would have been ball four. Then Phillies reliever Seranthony Domínguez got Arenado to end the threat and the noise inside the stadium.
Saturday’s game marked the first time this season Goldschmidt and Arenado struck out at least twice in the same game. It happened just once in 2021.
“With myself, I didn’t play well at all and that’s what I look at,” said Goldschmidt, whose struggles were a continuation of his last six weeks of the regular season. “If I could have played better, maybe we could have won -- at least one [game] if not both.”
It was a jarring conclusion to a season where the Cardinals considered themselves strong threats to do damage in October. Goldschmidt (0-for-7 in the series, four strikeouts), Arenado (1-for-8, two strikeouts) and Pujols (2-for-8, one strikeout) had some hard-hit balls run down, but mostly they failed to make any sort of meaningful contact at all. The Cardinals finished 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position in the series.
Goldschmidt struck out once on Friday and three times on Saturday -- the final two coming after Pujols singles. Arenado had a hard-hit ball fall just short of a home run on Friday and his line drive down the third-base line was robbed of extra bases by Philadelphia’s Alec Bohm.
“I felt like I had some really good at-bats these last two days -- yesterday and today -- and I don’t have anything to show for it,” a bleary-eyed Arenado said with a wavering voice.
The Cardinals stressed from the start of Spring Training that anything short of an appearance in the World Series would be a disappointment because of the mix of veteran experience and dynamic young players on the roster. As it turned out, the Cardinals finished well short of that goal by getting eliminated in the first round for a third straight season.
“Credit to the Phillies, they beat us today,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “We didn't beat ourselves. They beat us.”
It was also the end of the line for Pujols and Molina, both of whom announced in Spring Training that they would retire at the end of the season. Pujols, 42, was back with the Cardinals after 10 seasons of playing on the West Coast and he gave the fanbase one of the most stirring seasons in history with a second-half home run barrage. Pujols’ 18 home runs in the second half of the season allowed him to become just the fourth player in MLB history to reach the 700-home run plateau, and he finished his career with 703 home runs.
“All the glory goes to the Lord for opening the door for me to come back to St. Louis, and He allowed me to stay healthy and strong, and trust my process and it let me do what I could to help this organization,” Pujols said.
As for Molina, he spent his entire 19-year career with the Cardinals, winning two titles and nine Gold Gloves while wearing the birds on a bat. He and Wainwright, whose future is uncertain, became the most durable starting battery in AL/NL history this season by topping the previous record of 324 starts together and ending up with 328.
Said Wainwright of Pujols and Molina: “I’ll remember what winning players they are. They are tied for the most clutch players I’ve ever played with.”
While the Cardinals struggled to muster any offensive momentum, Bryce Harper ambushed St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas on a first-pitch curveball to open the second inning, hitting it 435 feet into the seats beyond the right-field wall.
That run was more than enough because of the work of Nola. He surrendered four hits over 6 2/3 innings and never allowed a runner past second base.
“Execute and execute,” Nola said of his mindset against Goldschmidt and Arenado. “That's my main thing with those guys coming up with the whole lineup – execute my pitches”
Emotionally shaken afterward, Arenado said it will take him weeks if not months to wash away his disappointment.
“We just didn’t come through,” he said. “We had opportunities to do it and we didn’t. We just couldn’t get it done.”