NLCS Game 2: Cardinals left figuring things out as Nationals take 2-0 series lead

Tim BrownMLB columnist

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals, over the first 24 hours and 18 innings of the National League Championship Series, had amassed four base hits. Two of the four had spoiled late no-hitters, so there was that. One of the four had been misplayed by an outfielder. They’d played 13 of those innings down a run, one lousy run, and in those innings they’d produced three walks, a hit batsman and a single, the one that fouled Max Scherzer’s no-hit drama on Saturday evening, which had followed Aníbal Sánchez’s no-hit theater the prior night.

When it was time to sort through two games and an .070 batting average (taken back a bit further, six hits in 77 at-bats since they’d put a hard 13 runs on the Atlanta Braves in three innings Wednesday) and 18 strikeouts, when the manager shrugged at a couple long fly balls that had died before home-run glory and then casually mentioned his analytics department determined October baseballs have lost 4½ feet of giddyup, well, about the best news is the Cardinals had the dugout closest to first base, so their legs will be rested for Game 3.

These are the frailties of postseason baseball, when two games aren’t near enough to identify the better team, except one of those teams — the Washington Nationals — just jangled into Busch Stadium and played about the tightest baseball of their season over those 24 hours. They beat the Cardinals, 3-1, on Saturday, that following Friday night’s 2-0 score, and it seemed like the Cardinals were hardly in either game.

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Scherzer did that. And Sánchez did that. And, even, the Nationals’ very lean bullpen did that. And Stephen Strasburg and his 1.32 career ERA in the postseason is next. And you can point to Saturday afternoon’s shadows and Friday night’s wizardry and a few near misses and whatever relationship the baseball and gravity suddenly have here, and none of it alters the fact that dozens of red duffel bags were lined end to end in the Cardinals clubhouse by Saturday evening (possibly waiting to be shipped to the final two or three games of their season).

Adam Wainwright’s cheeks had been reddened by the sun that reflected off them for most of his 7⅓ innings. The tarry black beneath Matt Carpenter’s left eye dripped along the left side of his face. Kolten Wong drew a black hood over his head. Yadier Molina turned a white cap backward and said, “We gotta figure it out… We gotta come back tomorrow, the off day, regroup and figure it out.”

Catcher Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after hitting into a double play to end the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Catcher Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after hitting into a double play to end the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Three hits. One fell at left fielder Juan Soto’s feet, it perhaps granted and not challenged because the Nationals’ lead was but 1-0 in the seventh inning. One was a gift of Michael Taylor’s misjudgment in center field. One Charlie Browned reliever Sean Doolittle, a line drive through the middle that spun him and sat him down on the mound, his legs extended straight in front of him, his expression that of a man silently counting his limbs and soft-tissue areas. Just those three. Two more than the night before. But just those three. Against wonderful starting pitchers on their games and beginning to feel the tug of a franchise’s first World Series. Still, just those three, while nearly 50,000 red-splashed folks sat and watched and sorted through the emotions of being a run back and completely out of a baseball game, and considering the possibility that when these guys dragged those duffel bags back from D.C. it would not be to play more baseball, it would be to explain how two games in this ballpark passed with barely a bat barrel dented.

“Nobody wants to hear it,” Carpenter said, “but you gotta give some credit to them.”

He’s hitless in six at-bats.

“This is not going to get any easier,” he said.

With three strikeouts.

“We gotta find a way,” he said, “to start having better at-bats. As a group we could probably have better at-bats. But we’re facing good pitching. The result is what you’re seeing.”

Paul Goldschmidt has one hit in eight at-bats, one of two for Cardinals regulars. (Jose Martinez has two hits, both off the bench.)

“Obviously,” he said, “we’d have liked to get a run or two.”

He struck out twice Saturday.

“But we didn’t,” he said.

Molina does not have a hit. Marcell Ozuna does not have a hit. Dexter Fowler has a walk and three strikeouts in eight plate appearances.

“We’re going to fight our way out of it,” said Wong, who does not have a hit.

The Cardinals are drowning in spotted fastballs and disappearing sliders and changeups that just … won’t … get … there. They are hitting the same baseballs as the Nationals. Or, perhaps, not hitting them. But they could. They squinted through the very same shadows late Saturday afternoon. They were spotted home-field advantage and did not have to play a wild-card game or a 106-win team in the division series. Their pitchers have given up five runs across two games, which isn’t very many, though each has felt like a landslide.

Wainwright, after what could be his final start of the season, or for the Cardinals, or ever, smiled soulfully. His cheeks reddened further. This is the game, how it goes sometimes, and he reached for the largest hunk of optimism there was.

“That’s why,” he said, “we play a best-of-seven. Right?”

He’d pitched so deftly. Through seven innings he’d matched Scherzer outside of a single cut fastball Taylor popped into the sun-washed left-field bleachers. And now he was asking for the ball one more time.

“I’m hoping to,” he said. “It didn’t feel like this was my last day. I think this team can get me back home.”

Maybe. They’ll all find out together. Until then, those duffel bags weren’t going to pack themselves.

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