ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The most crushing strike to the Cardinals’ 2016 season may not have been a towering homer or a five-run, first inning implosion. It may have been a cracked-bat bloop single from a guy hitting .240 on a team with nothing to play for.
When Adam Duvall muscled a two-out looper into shallow left field to score two runs in the third inning Wednesday night, it certainly didn’t feel like a death blow. It seemed like an annoyance, especially to Mike Leake, who was busy pitching to bad contact and getting groundouts aplenty.
“That’s what you’re trying to do is make weak contact. You’re trying to get broken bats. You can’t really predict where it will fall unfortunately. I was happy with the contact that was made tonight,” he said.
And why wouldn’t he be? Two runs is hardly insurmountable. After all, the Cardinals had just scored 12 the night before in a get-right game, and even managed a pair of runs when they got shelled Monday.
It was only a matter of time before the offense arrived. St. Louis scored one in the fifth and as the game marched toward the later innings, toward a Cincinnati bullpen that had surrendered 99 homers, a victory seemed a swing away.
But in a season like 2016, certainty gives way to disbelief all too often. When a team is mired in mediocrity, baseball has a way of finding misfortune. It found Brandon Moss, in the midst of a gruesome 6-for-87 slump, in the sixth inning. With runners at second and third, the slugger whiffed on strike three, marking the third at-bat in which he stranded at least one base runner.
Over the final four innings, the Cardinals put a man on third three times and never brought him home. The most dispiriting example came when Kolten Wong led off the ninth with a pinch hit triple and watched the game bleed away over the next three at bats.
For three innings, the tying run stood 90 feet away and never came home.
“It looks, sounds easy, that all you need is a sacrifice fly. But you have a guy who is throwing 98, dropping down, throwing sliders. There is plenty of challenge to getting the job done,” Mike Matheny said. “ When you have that many chances to score and take over the game, yeah, that hurts. No question about it.”
So the game ended with one of the worst teams in the National League edging a Wild-Card contender by a single run on a foreign field. The cut is especially deep since the Giants, holding a one game lead for the final October spot, lost to the Rockies. With five contests left to salvage a disappointing campaign, the Cardinals failed to fire.
“We’re running out of time. I mean we have four games left and now we have to have the Giants lose,” Leake said. “That’s not an ideal position, but I mean if we can win four games straight here I think we can still put ourselves in the best opportunity.”
But opportunities have come and gone all year. Momentum has pulsed through Busch Stadium and straight into the ever-cooling night sky, unused, ad nauseum. This isn’t a team that just caught a bad break, or was unfairly smited by the the capriciousness of injury. It’s one that has been fundamentally incapable of living up to its own expectations, unable to prove its best baseball is something we haven’t already seen.