WASHINGTON -- Almost every Cardinals player lingered. They hung over the railing of the visitors’ dugout at Nationals Park, and they watched.
They watched the celebration from the opposite dugout spill out onto the mound. They watched the gloves fly and the fireworks light up the stadium and the opposing players hug one another. They watched what they had hoped was going to be their celebration until the Nationals marched into the National League Championship Series and swept them.
Tuesday’s 7-4 loss ended the Cardinals’ season with a thud. They had gotten back to the postseason. They climbed back to the top of their division. They were in the NLCS and eyeing the World Series.
And then they were not.
“Felt like it kind of sped up on us,” Paul DeJong said. “I felt like the Braves series [the NL Division Series] lasted forever, and it was only five games. This one was four games, but it felt like a blur."
In four games against the Nationals, the Cardinals never led once. Their pitching held the score close in the first two games but crumbled in the last two. The defense made uncharacteristic mistakes. And their offense did not show up until it was too late.
“[The Nationals] beat us to the punch every step of the way,” said Adam Wainwright, who pitched 1 2/3 innings of relief. “Their lineup was tough. Their pitchers were tough. Their defense was great. Timely hits. There’s really nothing that we can say we beat them at. They did a great job."
Dakota Hudson’s first two pitches were balls, and then Trea Turner singled to start a seven-run first inning for the Nationals. Three of those runs were unearned because of Kolten Wong’s error at second base. Another came because of Martínez’s defensive miscue on Victor Robles’ fly ball to shallow right field that was ruled a single.
Hudson's seven runs allowed are tied for the most by any pitcher in a postseason start of one-third of an inning or less. He’s tied with Mike Foltynewicz in Game 5 of the NLDS, when the Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first.
That game against the Braves was less than a week ago, but it feels like a season ago. Because what got the Cardinals to this point -- one of the final four teams left in the postseason -- disappeared against the Nationals.
In the first three games of the NLCS, the Cardinals scored two runs. They struck out 48 times in the series, including Goldschmidt’s nine strikeouts and Marcell Ozuna's eight in the middle of the lineup. The Nationals’ rotation, led by Corbin, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, silenced the Cardinals hitters every game.
“We weren’t able to do much,” Goldschmidt said. “It’s frustrating. But you also have to give them credit. It’s hard, and I’m walking that line. You definitely take the blame, but to not give them credit for pitching the way they did -- there’s probably some middle ground. We needed to do better to win. That was obvious. We lost four in a row.”
There were some signs of life. Yadier Molina hit a solo home run in the fourth, and Martínez’s double off the center-field wall in the fifth capped a three-run fifth inning. The four runs off Corbin were the Cardinals’ first earned runs in the series off a Nationals pitcher. But Corbin ended the fifth with a pair of strikeouts of Goldschmidt and Ozuna -- Corbin’s 11th and 12th strikeouts of the night.
The Cardinals had the bases loaded down three runs in the eighth, but Matt Carpenter grounded out to end the frame.
“There wasn't one guy that didn't expect to win that game,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Yadi gets us started with the homer, and they couldn't have felt real comfortable over there. We just weren't able to bring it home. We had the go-ahead run at the plate with a guy we have confidence in. So a lot of positives took place, but not enough of them.”
The Nationals’ seven-run inning was enough to send them their first World Series in franchise history. And the Cardinals will have to balance defining their season as what they accomplished against how it ended.
“It’s tough,” Andrew Miller said. “You get here and you get to play in games that have this atmosphere -- it’s everything you ever dreamed of and everything you want to be a part of. The frustrating part of it is only one team wins the last game; everybody else has this taste in their mouth, and it stinks and it’s not a lot of fun. It’s something that hopefully pushes you to work hard in the offseason to get better.”