LOS ANGELES -- The Cardinals believed they were not that team from June, when they went 10-17 while navigating through injuries, underwhelming performances and games in which one misstep derailed their day. And as much as they rode the waves of their 17-game win streak in September, they acknowledged that was not a realistic expectation either.
But they knew their club was somewhere in the middle, the scale tilted toward the late-season Cards when healthy. They felt they needed a chance to prove themselves right and the naysayers wrong. They felt they were special.
That chance came on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium, but then the magic vanished.
The Cardinals lost to the Dodgers in the National League Wild Card Game, 3-1, when Chris Taylor sent Alex Reyes’ hanging slider for a walk-off two-run homer. They'd set themselves up for the upset, getting to NL Cy Young Award hopeful Max Scherzer first and playing a rather clean game defensively. But on the most important night of the year, they couldn’t navigate the razor-thin margins they had faced for much of the season.
“We got a clubhouse full of guys that are hurting, Alex included,” said manager Mike Shildt. “This team didn't come here just to play this game, this team came here to win and move on and take down our 12th World [Series] championship.”
The Cardinals are proud of what they've accomplished, having worked past a rash of injuries to remain afloat before working their way to the playoffs in September. They valued what they got to take part in on Wednesday, a coin flip of a game through eight innings against a 106-win team, but a contest that also saw them miss numerous chances to pull ahead and then head up to San Francisco. But the thought of what they left on the table does little to ease their heartbreak.
“I just ... I felt like ...” said starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, trailing off. “I felt like we had a team that was going to win a World Series, honestly.”
The Cards had their opportunities to avoid ending their season in such a crushing manner. They put Scherzer on the ropes, with a runner on base in each of his innings, but they ended the night 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, with 11 men stranded.
They were kept close in large part due to Wainwright. Their 40-year-old ace grinded his way through 5 1/3 innings, helping himself by snagging a scorching comebacker in the first inning and getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the third by inducing a broken-bat double play from Trea Turner.
Tommy Edman was the Cardinals’ best hope for a spark. He got on base three times and stole a pair of bases, scoring in the first on a wild pitch. He found himself in scoring position with one out in the top of the ninth, but Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen slammed the door with two consecutive strikeouts.
The Cardinals did their best to work past the squandered chances. They got five outs from Luis García, who started the year in the Yankees’ system. They thrust T.J. McFarland, who started the year with the Nationals, into a tie game in the ninth because their closer, Giovanny Gallegos, developed an issue with a fingernail and couldn’t continue after pitching the eighth. But they didn’t get production from two of their three MVP candidates, Nolan Arenado and Tyler O'Neill, who finished a combined 0-for-8 with a walk.
The Cards kept themselves in it late before reality set in.
“It’s a team of guts and grit and all the positive things that you can say about makeup and perseverance and persistence and belief in yourself and belief in your brother,” Shildt said.
Beyond the heartbreak, these Cardinals remain inspired for 2022. They hope they can return to the full health that escaped them this season, most notably with Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson primed to anchor the pitching staff. (Though both were available out of the bullpen on Wednesday, neither warmed up.) Wainwright and Yadier Molina have already re-signed for one last go-around as well.
The club hopes to have an entire year of Harrison Bader, O’Neill and Dylan Carlson roaming the outfield grass together, something enjoyed only sporadically this season. They hope to continue to see their perennial MVP candidates shine, with Arenado not exercising his opt-out clause and becoming entrenched opposite Paul Goldschmidt on the corners of the infield.
But hope is on pause until the offseason begins in earnest and the next wave of Cardinals arrive at Spring Training in February.
“The takeaway from this past year is those two words I’ve used in the past, perseverance and confidence,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said on the Bally Sports Midwest broadcast, “and this team showed that in the end.”