CHICAGO -- Reality struck the Cardinals on Saturday when they were officially eliminated from the postseason hunt while watching the Dodgers defeat the Giants. Finality arrived on Sunday.It felt so abrupt for the Cardinals, who one week ago boasted an 80 percent probability of playing in the postseason. But they
CHICAGO -- Reality struck the Cardinals on Saturday when they were officially eliminated from the postseason hunt while watching the Dodgers defeat the Giants. Finality arrived on Sunday.
It felt so abrupt for the Cardinals, who one week ago boasted an 80 percent probability of playing in the postseason. But they skidded to the finish line with five losses in their final six games, including a 10-5 defeat at Wrigley Field in Game 162. The Cubs needed the win to keep their division title hopes alive, and they now host a Monday tiebreaker with the Brewers to determine the National League Central champ. The loser will host the Wild Card Game.
The Cardinals finished seven games back of both division rivals. It's the first time since 1971 that 88 wins weren't enough to propel St. Louis into the playoffs.
"We've got to find a way to compete in this division," said Matt Carpenter, an expected top-10 finisher in NL MVP Award voting later this fall. "It's three straight years of coming up short. We, as an organization, as a total group, top to bottom, everyone in this clubhouse, the staff, we have to get better if we want to play in October. I think we're headed in the right direction, and the second half was definitely a good starting point, but we have to find a way to get there. We have to find a way to get better."
Mustering more momentum down the stretch would be one element. One year after playing themselves out of the NL Central mix by losing seven of their final nine games, the Cardinals squandered their position in the Wild Card race with a 12-15 September. They were outscored, 45-19, over the final week.
"When it comes down to it, our fan base deserves playoff teams," general manager Michael Girsch said. "We can't be anything but disappointed in a season that doesn't get us to the playoffs. That's our expectation. That's ownership's expectation. That's what our fan base expects and what we expect to deliver. You could tell us before the season all the things that were going to go wrong and it might make me feel good that we did well despite those things, but if we don't make the playoffs, it's hard to be anything but disappointed."
Reflection will remind that there were some bright spots to the season, arguably none more exciting than the emergence of numerous rookie contributors. Prominent among those was Jack Flaherty, who took the ball one final time on Sunday. But pitching in front of a raucous sold-out crowd, Flaherty finished his sensational rookie season with his second shortest start.
Flaherty lasted 2 2/3 innings before being chased while seven consecutive Cubs reached base with two out to flip a two-run deficit into a 4-2 lead.
"It sucks how it went," Flaherty said. "I definitely wanted to go out and win today, not just to play spoiler, but to end the season on a high note."
Those four runs nudged Flaherty's season ERA up to 3.34. Still, since 1953, only three Cardinals rookies -- Harvey Haddix, Shelby Miller and Mike Morris -- have posted lower marks.
And it's not the only leaderboard that includes Flaherty, who finished with 182 2/3 innings pitched. Among rookies in franchise history, Flaherty ranked third in strikeouts (182), first in strikeouts per nine innings (10.85) and tied for first in hits per nine innings (6.44).
In Major League history, only three players (Kerry Wood, Dwight Gooden and Hideo Nomo) had a higher K/9 mark than Flaherty.
"Not only Jack, but you see so many of the younger guys and the growth and the talent and the stewardship of the veteran players. ... It bodes very, very well for what's in the future," manager Mike Shildt said. "And Jack's going to be a big part of that."
That youth was on display Sunday behind Flaherty, too, as rookies Austin Gomber, Tyler Webb, Dakota Hudson and Daniel Poncedeleon helped close out the game. Gomber surrendered four runs, and Webb was knocked for two unearned tallies as the Cubs pulled away.
A starting lineup that featured four rookie position players on Sunday knocked out Cubs starter Mike Montgomery in the third inning, but it also squandered opportunities to do more. The Cardinals finished 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded 12 runners.
"This was an incredible team, a lot of positive things happened, especially in mid-July," outfielder Harrison Bader said. "It was an absolute ride. I loved every second of it. I can't be more excited about what's to come in the future from this group and from myself."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Cardinals were still within striking distance after Flaherty exited, but the Cubs turned the game into a rout with a four-run fifth. The first three batters stung hits off Gomber, including Kristopher Bryant, who delivered a two-run double. Willson Contreras capped the inning with a two-run homer. After going 5-0 with a 2.38 ERA in August, Gomber allowed 20 earned runs in 19 2/3 innings in September.
"I think some of the young guys maybe, mentally, were figuring out what [the grind of a six-month MLB schedule] looks like," Shildt said. "But [Gomber's] stuff was coming out. He was fine. He was more than ready to go. The lineup was set up for him today. Just too many mistakes, behind in the count. He got hurt."
Seeking to become the eighth Cardinals player to lead the NL in home runs, Carpenter had Nolan Arenado catch and surpass him on Sunday. Carpenter finished with 36. He hit just one home run in September, during which he batted .170.
Carpenter also went the entire season (677 plate appearances) without grounding into a double play.
HE SAID IT
"It's a disappointing end to a bit of a roller-coaster season. But the good news is that the last two months have been positive. And the changes that we made have generally been positive and put us in a position where we're excited about next year. But that's hard to be at the moment, when you're mostly just disappointed and frustrated that the season is coming to an end." -- Girsch
"You look at it, we were a few games away this year. We didn't want it to end this way, but looking ahead, we know what we have in this clubhouse. Everybody is excited. It's definitely looking up right now. All you have to do is take a quick look around at all the guys who are going to be back next year." -- Flaherty
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.