(BaseballStL) — All the magic of St. Louis’ 2014 came to an end at the hands of the same improbable success that defined it for so long. An unlikely swing, a hit at the right time, a home run that had no business going over the fence.
Travis Ishikawa, a 33-year-old journeyman who batted .274 in 47 games this season, hit his third home run all year in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS to send the Giants to the World Series and the Cardinals into the offseason.
It was a heart-wrenching end to a game that featured just enough Cardinal enchantment that a victory seemed all but certain. Matt Adams hit the first home run by a lefty off Madison Bumgarner since early April to tie the game 2-2 in the fourth. Back up (and at points third string) catcher Tony Cruz hit the fourth homer of his career to give the Birds the lead three batters later.
Adam Wainwright, fighting elbow pain and bearing the weight of two ugly starts, dazzled observers with seven innings of his best work. The 33-year-old finished with 10 straight outs, striking out the side in the sixth inning and utterly bewildering the Giants for his final three frames.
His performance was a relief to many in a Cardinal uniform, most of all to the ace himself, who said before the start he feared getting “a bad rap” as a sub-par playoff pitcher.
Instead, he returned to his 20-win form in time to give the Cardinals a chance. Save for a two-run shot by Joe Panik, Wainwright controlled the game. In a postseason run driven by unpredictability, he became a fixed point. The moment he exited, the stability went too.
Pat Neshek came on in the eighth, and one batter later, the game was tied. Pinch hitter Michael Morse took the All Star setup man deep to left, and all the confidence Wainwright had instilled over 97 pitches was erased with one swing.
The Cardinals loaded the bases in the ninth, but Sunday’s hero Oscar Taveras grounded harmlessly back to the mound for the final out. Mike Matheny turned to Michael Wacha for the bottom half, asking the 23-year-old to hold a 3-3 tie after not having pitched in 20 days. Before the postseason began, Wacha was moved to the bullpen when he was unable to regain his command following rehab from his shoulder injury. Predictably, control played a factor. After giving up a single to Pablo Sandoval Wacha was able to get an out, but a four-pitch walk to Brandon Belt put two on. Ishikawa saw a pitch he liked, and like that the game was over.
The 2014 Cardinals were a case study in perseverance. Over 162 games they refused to yield to better talent or unfavorable odds. They rallied to beat baseball’s best pitcher twice. They won with homers, singles and hit-by-pitches. They endured injuries and inconsistencies, with rookies rising to prominence as familiar faces left for different cities. But October is unrelenting, and the Cardinal magic finally ran out.
For Neshek and Wacha, fan favorites all season long, winter will be spent reflecting on pitches they wish they had thrown differently. Wainwright will wonder if he returned too late to save his team despite a heroic final effort. Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter, Adams, Taveras- at times, heroes all- will watch the World Series from home.
Such is the tragedy of sports. For every team but one, the season ends with a loss.