ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Baseball gave St. Louis a bittersweet ending Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals rolled through the Pirates for a 10-4 victory, defeating a disinterested opponent with timely hitting and a quality start from Adam Wainwright. Matt Holliday got one last goodbye, taking the field alone and receiving a third standing ovation from the remaining fans, ones that pushed the Cardinals’ home attendance to more than 3.4 million, the fifth highest in franchise history.
But overshadowing it all was the scoreboard looming over right field, displaying an ever-growing lead for the Giants, effectively negating the victory and guaranteeing St. Louis wouldn’t see a postseason for the first time since 2010.
“I didn’t think I was going to watch it very closely. I was worried about my own game. But I watched the score every inning. When they went up 5-1, you could sort of see our dugout kind of deflate a little bit,” Wainwright said. “Those Giants played well when they needed to. They played a tough Dodger team there at home to finish the season and won all three games at home, just like we did against the Pirates. Gladly, we finally played some good ball at home. Our fans deserved that.”
But once they fell a game behind the Giants in the Wild Card race, their future belonged to another team. They didn’t have agency of their own destiny in the season’s final week, but they did in the months preceding it. One game made all the difference, and searching through the results from an unpredictable year provides plenty of alternative futures to wonder about.
Look to the 37-43 home record, the first time they’ve been below .500 in Busch since 1999 and their worst home mark since 1990. No one had an explanation for why the team played so soft on its own field. It was an oddity without a cause. They tried everything to fix it after ignoring it didn’t work, from skipping batting practice to showing up later, as they would have on the road. But Busch continued to be inhospitable, and you can blame any number of homestands for the Cardinals being one game short.
Maybe it was June 29, when they returned from a 5-3 road trip, including a sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and lost two to the Royals and three to the Pirates at home. Or the two they gave up to Atlanta (39-70 at the time) to open August’s home schedule. Perhaps the two others they lost to Oakland (55-73 at the time) to close it. Alter one outcome in the three game stretch when they hosted the Rangers in June, one where the Cardinals lost back-to-back-to-back one-run games, and they’re playing Monday night. They went 10-13 in one-run games at home, a place where they should have the better rest and crowd adrenaline behind them. Two runs in any of the 13 losses made the difference.
Examine the rotation, so good a year ago, and all the unpredictability it brought. The Cardinals ranked 14th in starting ERA at 4.33 and endured 25 starts of less than five innings. The had six starts of less than three. Through injury and underperformance, they were forced to start two rookies down the final stretch.
The defense certainly didn’t help, committing the sixth-most errors in baseball (107) and forcing pitchers who throw to contact into situations where they couldn’t trust a ground ball. Worse still was the number of plays not made; the double plays that morphed into just a fielder’s choice, the misread fly balls that landed somewhere other than a mitt. They don’t go down as errors, but they certainly contribute to the zero defensive runs saved the Cardinals posted this year, finishing 15th in baseball.
Take a trip around the bases, where the Cardinals were 18th in unforced errors as a team. They were picked off eight times, turned a fly ball into a double play nine times and recorded 47 outs trying to take an extra base. They were caught stealing 26 times, a strange insistence on running for a team without a lot of speed. All those dead runners become even more frustrating when looking at the team’s prolific home run totals. They hit 224, the most in the National League, meaning they didn’t need extra bases to score. They didn’t need to try to sprint to second on a single or try to swipe a bag. They could stand still and wait to trot. If a few of those runners survive to score, they could be on a plane to New York tonight.
“Clearly, the year we had, we didn’t meet our goals. There’s no other way to say it other than it’s disappointing. There are a lot of things we could talk about, whether it’s defense, baserunning, record at home. All of these things will have to be addressed at some level this offseason,” GM John Mozeliak said. “I do feel like, though, this organization is in maybe a better spot than people say we are. I feel very confident with what we have in our minor leagues, and hopefully we can address the right pieces whether it’s in trade or free agency to improve upon where we are today.”
St. Louis finished August and September a game over .500. They split a series with the Reds, but finished the season 4-0 and flashed some of their best baseball of the season. Sunday their destiny depended on the Giants, but the truth is the Cardinals controlled it all along.